The BATTLE of AMFAR : The story of how a Hollywood movie star and a top research scientist fought the spread of a deadly virus
Meet the Filmmakers
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s partnership making non-fiction and feature films began in 1987 when they opened an office in a former convent in San Francisco and founded Telling Pictures.
In addition to being directors and producers on The BATTLE of AMFAR, Epstein and Friedman recently directed Lovelace, with Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard, and Sharon Stone. Both films premiered at Sundance 2013. Their previous film HOWL, starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, was the opening night selection at Sundance 2010. Prior credits include The Celluloid Closet (1995, Sundance Freedom of Expression Award, Emmy Award for directing) Paragraph 175 (2000, HBO, Sundance directing award), and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989, HBO, Oscar for Best Documentary Feature). This was Rob’s second Oscar, having won for The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), chosen in 2012 by the U.S. Library of Congress for preservation in its National Film Registry. The Celluloid Closet, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, and The Times of Harvey Milk all won the Peabody Award.
The BATTLE of AMFAR is the story of how a Hollywood movie star, Elizabeth Taylor, and a Swiss research scientist, Dr. Matilde Krim, joined forces to create America’s first AIDS research organization, known today as The Foundation for AIDS Research, or amfAR. Their unrelenting drive, compassion and courage forever changed the course of AIDS history—and gave hope to all people living with HIV. The film is scheduled to air on HBO in celebration of World AIDS Day 2013 on December 2, 2013.
Three Questions for Rob and Jeff
Q: The BATTLE of AMFAR is your second film focused on HIV/AIDS. You won the Oscar for Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt. Why make a second film about the pandemic, and why now?
A: When we made Common Threads in the late '80s we were in the eye of the storm. We knew that HIV was some kind of virus, and that it was transmitted through blood. The treatments were primitive and only somewhat effective. People were still dying, and we didn't know if drugs would be — or could be — developed quickly enough to stem the tide. It was a much scarier time. And because it was primarily affecting minorities, the epidemic had yet to come to the forefront of public consciousness. When the subject did arise in the mass media, it was usually in the context of "the other" — gay men, intravenous drug users — groups already considered on the margins of society. So our primary goal back then was to humanize the epidemic for those people not directly affected.
25 years later HIV/AIDS has become a "manageable chronic condition" — at least in the U.S. and the western world, where we know fewer people who are dying. We have lost the "sense of urgency," as Woody Allen puts it in THE BATTLE OF AMFAR. That's a shame, as this complacency has bred carelessness and led to increasing rates of infection, particularly among young people. In the developing world, people are still dying in terrifying numbers. This complacency is all the more upsetting at a time when there seems to be unprecedented hope for finding a cure — not just better treatments, but a real cure. Outside of the research community, I don't think most people are aware of this. So our goal with this film is to let people know that HIV/AIDS is still with us — it's not over till it's over — and to spread the word that with enough support it may be possible to find a cure and end the epidemic once and for all.
Q. In the film, you had several people open up you and tell you stories they had never told publicly before. Such as Aileen Getty, who was married to Elizabeth Taylor's son. How do you, as storytellers and filmmakers, win the trust of your subjects?
A. If people trust and open up to us, I imagine it's because they trust our motives and intentions. One advantage to being around for a while is that you get a reputation, and sometimes that works in your favor.
Q. What surprised you the most in the making of The BATTLE of AMFAR?
A. I was shocked to hear how negative the public reaction to Rock Hudson's death was. When Aileen Getty describes the bags and bags of mail pouring in, I naively imagined they were from sympathetic fans. We forget how much fear and hatred the epidemic engendered. I was also surprised to learn how important "functional cures" like that of the Berlin patient are to research, and how much optimism this has sparked among scientists about the possibility of a cure.