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Commitment to Life Review: the Fight Against AIDS

People protest in a march for AIDS in the documentary Commitment to Life

Jeffrey Schwarz’s film Commitment to Life is a wonderful, all-encompassing documentary about the superstars and communities who mobilised to battle the AIDS epidemic.

Jeffrey Schwarz is a remarkable director. Alongside his work on ‘making of’ featurettes for films like Blue Velvet and Reservoir Dogs, he is an experienced and incredibly prolific documentarian who has strived to highlight gay icons (Vito), cult showbiz figures (Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story) or those who could be classified as both (I Am Divine, Tab Hunter Confidential). In 2022, he was at BFI Flare with Boulevard! A Hollywood Story, his intriguing documentary about Gloria Swanson’s attempts to turn Sunset Boulevard into a musical. Now Schwarz has returned to the festival with Commitment to Life, a detailed account of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) and the superstars and communities that mobilised to battle the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

In the early 1980s, California didn’t just have the glamour of Hollywood. It was home to community spaces for LGBTQ+ people, whether they were men’s bathhouses, lesbian bookstores or nightclubs in the heart of Black LA. Then suddenly, everything changed. The start of the decade saw the first sign of HIV/AIDs as it claimed the lives of gay men. By the end of 1983, 1 in 3 people with the disease in LA had died. A couple of years later, it was a national crisis. Feeling a need to take care of each other, a group of volunteers founded APLA, and it quickly became a vital organisation. They established a hotline and a dental clinic. They provided food, necessities and companionship to patients. 

Eventually, their goal became to get funding for research into the disease. The problem was that there was a lack of widespread information on the disease at this time, which led to a homophobic stigma becoming attached to it. Even in Hollywood, celebrities feared that their careers would be adversely affected if they supported the cause or came out as having it. Enter stage right, Elizabeth Taylor. Spurred by the death of her close friend Rock Hudson from the disease, the actress became a crucial figure in APLA’s campaign.

The title of Commitment to Life comes from the name of the charity’s annual fundraiser, which soon attracts a cavalcade of big names. And editor-producer-director Schwarz thoroughly demonstrates how media coverage and sheer star power (not just Taylor, but also the philanthropy of executive David Geffen) were utilised to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS. We see news reports, Elton John singing ‘I Feel Pretty’ at a Commitment to Life ceremony and a video package narrated by Tom Hanks. It is a treasure trove of archive material – most of which you can find on Schwarz’s YouTube channel –  that helps to recount the history of APLA and its staggering achievements. It is also complemented with talking head interviews with doctors, activists, volunteers and long-term survivors.

A black and white still from the documentary Commitment to Life
Commitment to Life (The Film Collaborative / BFI Flare 2024)

Some of the interviewees recall losing friends and lovers to AIDS. Most of them mention the dark, mournful times that drove them into action. It makes Commitment to Life a serious watch that is angering too. The portrayal of the early stages of the epidemic – where patients are in hospital with no one visiting them – leads to the examples of homophobia. Moreover, like Laura Poitras’ All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, there is anger directed at the lack of response from Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W Bush. As one text explainer states, the government spent $100bn on Operation Desert Storm in 1990 whilst 100,000 people in the US died from AIDS.

At times, you can detect that Commitment to Life leans towards a liberal viewpoint. Bill Clinton is praised a fair bit, though that is because he actually cared about the epidemic. Later, the final moments – which show how APLA rebranded into APLA Health in 2016 – feel like an advertisement. Both are puzzling aspects of this story that might be off-putting to some. Yet Schwarz is also able to acknowledge some failings – for instance, the non-inclusion of bisexual and transgender people in this campaign or the poor neighbourhoods that weren’t able to access as many resources. He also foregrounds Black and Latino experiences, mentions the more confrontational ACT UP and gives time to AIDS-centred films like Buddies and Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia.

Combined with the extensive following of APLA, Commitment to Life contains a lot of information. Yet it is never scattered. Instead, it is an all-encompassing, fascinating film aided by a wealth of archive material Schwarz has found and compiled together superbly. It is a documentary that manages to cover a range of voices and communities (famous or otherwise) and how they collectively formed into a movement that rallied against so much – a mix of reluctance, inaction and hatred – to raise awareness of AIDS, fight against it and ultimately save lives. 

Importantly, with its story ending four decades after the epidemic began, Commitment to Life thoughtfully concludes on a note that suggests we must not forget who has been lost or what still needs to be done, but we must also look back at the progress that has been made. Or, as one interviewee says, to look at how far we have come.

Commitment to Life was screened at BFI Flare on March 20-22, 2024. Read our BF Flare reviews!

Commitment to Life (The Film Collaborative / BFI Flare 2024)
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