Oscar-winning directors bring battle over AIDS activism to the small screen

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By 1985 Elizabeth Taylor was a multiple-time Oscar winner and one of the most recognized women in the world, while Dr. Mathilde Krim was a lauded but obscure, Geneva-educated medical researcher. The two women had virtually nothing in common until they discovered an unlikely shared interest: HIV.

At the time, it was still the disease that dared not speak its name but which Krim considered a fascinating medical puzzle and Taylor considered a humanitarian call to arms. So the pair founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), the first research institute of its kind and one born out of the seemingly mismatched teaming of two unalike women.

“They were from very different backgrounds, but they were both well-connected and glamorous. Of course no one’s as glamorous as Elizabeth Taylor, but Dr. Krim held her own,” says Jeffrey Friedman, co-director of “The Battle of amfAR,” an HBO-backed documentary about the improbable partnership. The film made the festival circuit this year and HBO will offer it for general public consumption next month. 

Friedman and his perpetual collaborator Rob Epstein in the past gave us AIDS-related documentary work with another HBO project, “Common Threads,” which netted the pair an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1990. Epstein had taken the same award six years prior for “The Times of Harvey Milk,” and the pair won a Peabody for their 1995 documentary “The Celluloid Closet.”

Since then they’ve focused on scripted fare with big-name stars: James Franco in 2010’s “Howl” and Amanda Seyfried in this year’s “Lovelace.” So “amfAR” is in some ways a return to their roots for the San Francisco-based directing duo, though they don’t necessarily see it that way themselves.

“We’re always interested in different ways of telling a story,” Epstein says. “You work with pastels for long enough and you might want to try oil paints, and it’s the same here: You do documentaries for a while, then start moving into scripted narratives, and use whatever the story needs.”

“On ‘Howl’ there was no footage of the young Ginsberg, so that seemed like a good enough reason to recreate what he might have been like then. With ‘Lovelace’ there’d already been a good documentary about that, so there was no reason to do another one,” Freidman adds. The story of amfAR, though, was one a documentarian’s lens had not yet focused on.

The public already knows part of the story of amfAR: Taylor’s grief over the death of her friend Rock Hudson, and her emotional testimony before Congress warning America’s leaders, “No one is safe. It is not just a minority disease; it belongs to all of us.” 

“It was a very bold thing at the time,” say Friedman. “She was a social insider, they both were, and the groups most affected by AIDS were outsiders: gay men, African-Americans, drug users. It was a scary time, and people were being turned away from doctor’s offices. The way these women embraced outsiders is what drew us to the story.”

Krim, though influential in medical circles, having been a researcher at Israel’s Weizmann Institute in the 50s and Cornell in the 60s, lacked Taylor’s high public profile. Raised in Switzerland, she was sheltered from the trauma of World War II until it was already over. “After the war she visited the camps, and that really changed her,” Friedman explains.

“One thing we don’t touch on in the film is that she later married a Jewish man and converted. At first she was attracted to AIDS research by the medical mystery of it, but when she realized that the political element was becoming an impediment and that it was these people outside of the mainstream who were suffering for it she really put her money where her mouth was.”

This during a time when the president refused to speak the name of the disease in public and when Jerry Falwell called AIDS “God’s judgment on gay men.” The battle part of “The Battle of amfAR” (“Someone said it sounded like a movie about the Afghan war,” Epstein jokes) was largely the two women’s struggle against red tape and political gamesmanship. “We wanted a title that acknowledged [the contentiousness],” Friedman says. “It was very much a conflict in those terms.” 

But the real hook with amfAR is not just the crisis but the women who put themselves in the middle of it, and how the directors felt their way around the pair. “You have to find your way into a subject,” says Epstein. “With ‘Lovelace’ we came to see that as a kind of coming out experience, and that’s something we could work with. We like to work from the inside out and you can struggle with that approach for a while.”

“Taylor was a little easier, because it’s always easier working with a movie star,” says Friedman. “There was a lot of material already. Dr. Krim was a little bit more difficult. But really, if you’re not completely obsessed with someone and their story, how would it even be possible to make a movie about them, and why would you put two years of your own life into making it happen?”

“The Battle of amfAR” was an official selection at Sundance, Tribeca, and the Seattle Film Festival, but most of us we will get our first chance to see it in December, in honor of World AIDS Day. In its nearly 20 year history, amfAR has pushed over $350 million into AIDS research and education. Mathilde Krim still serves on amfAR’s board of trustees, and in 2000 received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest honor. 

“The Battle of amfAR” airs December 2, 9:00 PM on HBO.

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