Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt is a massively powerful documentary about a cross-section of a handful of Americans who died of AIDS. This film was made back in 1989, so at this point it comes across as more of a history lesson than a current event documentary. The face of AIDS has truly changed in the past 15 years, but this is still a moving tribute to the early years of the disease.
As the title implies, this movie focuses on an assortment of individuals who have received patches on the magnificent AIDS quilt that has been growing over the years: a symbolic tribute to all those who have passed from the disease. It also shows us how the losses have affected the loved ones.
The featured individuals of this documentary are as follows:
1) A man who had been married and in the Navy, but eventually found the man of his dreams—who then died of AIDS. At the time of his interviews, the Navy man was very sick himself.
2) An African-American woman whose husband, a struggling drug addict, passed from the disease.
3) A husband and wife whose very young son was a hemophiliac, and realized by the time he was seven that he probably already had AIDS and would eventually die from it.
4) A lesbian who had a daughter with her best friend, a gay man who died of the disease.
5) AIDS activist Vito Russo, a man whose partner contracted the disease first. When Vito got tested, the test came up negative…until he discovered there had been a mix up with the blood at the lab.
Plan to have your tissues out for this one. It is a vividly real, emotionally stirring look at many different people who all had to cope with the same devastating disease at a time when the government was not interested in doing anything about it, because the belief was that AIDS was just affecting gay men, and the "general population" had nothing to worry about. The individual stories are heartbreaking and sad, but watching this film now, and having seen 15 more years of AIDS destruction, I found it to be even more infuriating to see clips of how the Reagan administration just turned its back to the problem repeatedly. I remember this being in the news when I was in my very early teens, and realizing that there were people dying, people like the person I already knew I was, and the government just didn't care. It's all very sad, and this movie works as an incredible time capsule to remind us of the unfortunate events without being overly political, just human. There is real irony here, for one can't help thinking that karma has had a hand in current events. Ron Reagan, Jr. now stands before Republicans begging to be heard as he fights for stem cell research, which could help combat the disease that brought so much hurt and pain to his family by claiming his father…20 years ago, gays did the same exact thing before his father. The Republicans did not listen to gays then, and the Republicans will not listen to his son today. This movie could be an incredible lesson for our society, but we rarely seem to learn from our mistakes.
The trouble arises with the needed audience for a film like this. If the devastation of AIDS concerns you, you're not going to learn much from watching this movie. It will just make you sad and angry. Now, if ignorant people who shut down all their humanity to this issue could watch it, it might make a slight difference. But chances are, they are not the ones who are going to be viewing this film. A very Fahrenheit 911 dilemma, wouldn't you say? But understand this. Common Threads is never manipulative or skewed—it's simply honest. Brutally honest.
The clips of the individuals of the documentary, interviews with them when possible and their families and friends, as well as some home movie footage, brings these people, their families, and the devastation of the loss to the forefront. The political aspects of AIDS in the 80s is handled well, just enough to get you to understand the unfortunate circumstances they and others faced. I was also very glad that there was just some minor coverage of the Bible-thumping ignorance that had many people, even influential figures, claiming that AIDS was God's punishment for unworthy people. Too much of that sort of thing would have spoiled the very humanity of this documentary and make it come across as more of a pity plea.
This is not a high-quality DVD release. It's a really bad full screen transfer. Specks and wear are obvious throughout, the film is grainy, there is a lot of color saturation most times, bad shadowing and halo effects surround the images, and the tint is a bit too pink. The worn out print really adds to the gloomy mood of the film. But I'm also sure there was little budget available at the time—and they weren't exactly going for a visual spectacular.
The film is presented in Dolby 2.0. It's one steady mono track, but it's consistent and doesn't require volume up/down action to hear the audio track properly.
Commentary by filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman—After watching the movie once, I'm not sure that you would willingly want to return to the somber mood of the documentary to hear what the filmmakers have to say. There are some tidbits about the featured people that weren't mentioned in the film (the filmmakers constantly refer to them as the "characters," which sort of bothered me, although, I can't really think of what to call them either), but none of the new information was all that interesting. The filmmakers gave some info about getting the money to make the film, how it all came about, and how they found their "characters," but there were also many very large silences where they said nothing, I guess so you could hear what was going on in the film. Overall, I found it hard to sit through the commentary.
Vito Russo's ACT UP speech—Vito Russo, a gay writer and one of the featured people of this documentary, made an impassioned speech at the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington D.C. in 1988, and this is the actual footage of the 8 minute speech.
Photo Gallery—these are stills of the filmmakers doing the interviews, shots of the actual quilt, and photos of many who have died.
"Then and Now"—this short film is approximately 45 minutes. It is not an update on the lives of any of the people who were focused on in the original film. It's mostly a history of how AIDS was able to ravage the world, as discussed with many professionals who were involved in working with AIDS patients and in AIDS research at the time. And the final message, which is supposed to be a wake up call, but is also a real downer, is that young men today are purposely attempting to contract the virus because they think people will care for them, love them, and worry about them if they have it.
15 years since it's original release, Common Threads, which focuses on a variety of very different people who were dying of AIDS when the government wasn't doing anything to control the plague, works as an incredible look at our history—and reminds us that we should learn to correct our mistakes of the past. I would recommend everyone see it at least once—and then go find out what's different, but still very much happening, in the current AIDS era. It's not a movie you would want to own. It's a learning tool—and it would best be used in schools to create awareness for young people.