"Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt" confronts us with the reality of AIDS with such simplicity and directness that it is hard to imagine how the enormous tragedy of this disease could be expressed with greater impact.
What film makers Jeffrey Friedman and Robert Epstein (who directed the Oscar-winning "The Times of Harvey Milk") have done is to interview five people who have lost loved ones to AIDS and to interweave their words with clips from TV news programs to chart both the relentless progress of the disease during the last decade and the inadequacy of the government's response to it.
As narrator Dustin Hoffman calmly ticks off increasingly grim statistics, the film takes the full measure of homophobia in our society. Yet one of its key accomplishments is to make clear how foolish and dangerous it is to regard AIDS as "the gay disease."
Tragedy has made everyone interviewed a figure of eloquence and candor. Sara Lewinstein speaks with humor and affection of the extraordinary relationship she had with Dr. Tom Waddell, a champion athlete who helped found the Gay Games in San Francisco. Although both were gay, they had a child. Soon after, Waddell was found to have AIDS. Sallie Perryman deeply loved her husband despite his drug addiction, which he struggled for years to overcome, only to succumb to AIDS. Another strong woman, Suzi Mandell, had to face the loss of her 11-year-old son, a hemophiliac who contracted the disease through his need for massive blood transfusions.
Writer Vito Russo ("The Celluloid Closet") speaks with anger of the loss of his lover, Jeffrey Sevcik, and of the time it takes for the FDA to test and release possible life-saving drugs. Navy Cmdr. Tracy Torrey speaks of marrying and raising a family before accepting his homosexuality, only to lose his lover, landscape architect David Campbell, to AIDS.
Torrey is clearly in the final stages of AIDS himself, and, as the film cuts from one interview subject to another, we realize that despite appearances of good health, many of them may either have AIDS or have tested HIV positive. Further disclosures make an already troubling film seem all the more devastating.
Linking these five people--and giving them a measure of consolation--is their participation in the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Indeed, Torrey's last act, before his own death from AIDS, was to make a panel for himself as well as one for Campbell.
"Common Threads," which has an understated score by Bobby McFerrin incorporating humming voices, culminates with the ceremonial unfolding of the vast quilt on the Mall in Washington. "Common Threads" (Times-rated Mature) thus leaves us with an image that is beautiful--but also one that conveys heartbreakingly the overwhelming loss of human life. Proceeds from the film's open-end run Sundays at 11 a.m. at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills will benefit the NAMES Project Foundation, which raises funds and encourages support for people with AIDS and their loved ones.