AIDS. The acronym appears in bold, black, all capital letters on an infographic behind a newscaster. He’s trying to explain the syndrome to his viewers back in the 80s. People in that industry did their best. Some are consistent in their serious tone while explaining the syndrome. Meanwhile, another archive news segment captures a man screwing up and trying to correct his mistake in real time. He smiles until he realizes what he’s actually saying. Other news producers try to bring in experts from the CDC, explaining how the people who get AIDS will die. People who had AIDS then often die different but preventable deaths. Thirty years later, the industry will try to explain the Syrian Civil War. And ten years after that, COVID.
In the middle of 1983, AIDS infected 1500 Americans and killed 600 of them. That body count will increase for decades. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary Common Threads doesn’t just arrange archive footage of the news coverage about AIDS. The documentary interviews a few relatives of people who died of AIDS. It also looks at how these people chose to remember those they have lost. One way was through a quilt that they and fellow activists unfurled at the Mall at Washington D.C. The interviews are as unique as each panel. But all of them symbolize, obviously, how survivors make visual representations of their loved ones.
There’s a universal appeal here. In seeing sections of the quilt, viewers can wonder how others see them. This curiosity has more emotional resonance for people within the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. I’m speaking from personal experience here. But often, we need to remember that people mourn them at a time when their government didn’t care about them. This documentary is part of Criterion Channel’s series Pride and Protest, capturing moments when LGBT+ people made their governments care.
Death, from a secondhand perspective, can obviously bring out a lot of emotions. Numbness, as a defense mechanism. Rage, because someone, even me, is responsible for people dying faster that they should have. Another reason for my personal rage would be my failure, thinking I haven’t watched enough 2SLGBTQIA+ films during Pride Month. I am now just catching up on LGBT+ films during Gay Wrath Month. But strangely enough, AIDS documentaries are never depressing in the personal sense. And the interviews are the reason for that, especially with this documentary. The subjects here always end with levity. That the people, mostly men, who they lost always saw the silver lining and were able to joke even before their last breaths. Happiness, love, and levity are interdependent, especially within 2SLGBTQIA+ relationships then and now. But still, Happy Gay Wrath Month!