Battle Stars

Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman examine the early days of amfAR in their new HBO documentary.
November 25, 2013

 

Premiering on HBO December 2 to commemorate World AIDS Day, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary The Battle of amfAR examines the birth of the organization and the two fearless women behind it. Here, the directors discuss their new film.

Since we’ve both been involved with the AIDS crisis since the beginning, it’s not like it ever goes away, but The Battle of amfAR is the first time we’ve visited the subject in our film work since Common Threads in 1989. At that time we were very much still in the midst of something terrifying and mystifying. We barely knew what HIV was, and it was still ravaging the population. Today, the story is much more hopeful in terms of research and treatment.
 
We knew of amfAR, but our focus, like that of many in the community, was more on activist groups like ACT UP and treatment organizations such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis and Project Inform. It was while researching this film that we really became aware of the tremendous contribution amfAR has made, and how instrumental they have been in moving us closer to a cure.
 
We’ve always been drawn to stories of people who have had extraordinary impact on our world. So the story of these two powerhouse women—a high-power research scientist and a megawatt movie star responding to a terrifying new epidemic—was irresistible. That Dr. Mathilde Krim and Elizabeth Taylor focused their joint efforts on research allowed us to look at the epidemic from a scientific angle. We found both story threads—the personal and the scientific—compelling. Our thought was to weave these elements together to remind viewers how far we’ve come from the early, horrifying days of the AIDS crisis, and to remind them that the epidemic is still with us.
 
It never hurts to have a movie star on board. Elizabeth Taylor’s humanity and fearlessness in—literally—embracing people with AIDS was a stirring example at a time when many people were deathly afraid to go anywhere near the disease. She brought all her star power to this fight against AIDS, testifying before Congress and not letting these old white guys off the hook. There she is dealing with the nitty-gritty of needle exchange. From high society to the streets, she brought all of her passion to this cause, using her sex appeal to bring attention to something people wanted to bury under the rug. Her heartfelt compassion was magnified by her movie star fabulousness. To witness her commitment to this is very moving.
 
[We] were both familiar with Dr. Mathilde Krim as a legendary figure but we didn’t know much about her story. At a time when very few in their privileged position were paying attention, Krim and Taylor were like the Thelma and Louise of those early years of the epidemic—minus the cliff!
 
The fluorescent microscopy images [in the film] are from research done by Dr. Thomas Hope in the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology at Northwestern University. Dr. Hope pioneered a way to film live cells so that it was possible to actually observe the process of HIV cells interacting with host cells, leading to better understanding of those interactions. We wanted to find a way to make the virus a character in the film, and found these images to be effective, precisely because they are both beautiful and unsettling.
 
As filmmakers we are drawn to tell stories that we believe need to be told and might otherwise get lost to time, but also stories about which we feel we have a particular point of view. [In making The Battle of amfAR] we were surprised and inspired by the extent of Elizabeth Taylor’s commitment to the fight against HIV/AIDS. We also became aware of important recent breakthroughs—based in part on research funded by amfAR—that are giving scientists new hope about actually finding a cure. —as told to John Russell
 
The Battle of amfAR premieres Dec 2 at 9pm on HBO. Visit thebattleofamfar.com for more info. 
 
 

Extra! Extra! 

The Epidemic on Film
The Battle of amfAR joins the canon of acclaimed films about the AIDS crisis.

How to Survive a Plague (2012)
 
United in Anger: A History of ACT UP (2012)
 
We Were Here (2011)
 
Philadelphia (1993)
 
And the Band Played On (1993)
 
Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989)