Interview With Jeffrey Friedman
Why did you want to make a documentary about amfAR and the AIDS epidemic?
It seemed like a good time to revisit the subject we first visited 25 years ago [in ‘Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt’]. So much has changed since then and there were parts of the story that hadn’t been told. We thought that telling the story of these two women who got involved very early on when they really didn’t have to -- but just because they felt they needed to -- was an inspiring entry point. We wanted to remind people and introduce younger generations to the reality of what was going on back then. There’s complacency among young people now about safe sex because they don’t know how horrible it was. Also, AIDS research has made such exciting progress.
Why do you think Dr. Mathilde Krim and Elizabeth Taylor were the perfect pair to launch amfAR?
I don’t know what it was. Chemistry, I guess. They were both very powerful, well-connected women, who were used to getting their way. They complemented each other well; Elizabeth Taylor was very focused on care and treatment and Dr. Krim was very focused on research and science. In that way, they were able to create a very broad outlook for the organization. They were so indomitable and determined and unwilling to take no for an answer. And of course it helped that Elizabeth Taylor was a fabulous movie star.
Do you think there’s still a stigma attached to AIDS?
Yes. I think there is a stigma attached to disease in general. But I don’t think the stigma attached to AIDS has ever lifted completely.
Why was it important for you to show someone who had contracted the disease, like Regan Hoffman?
There were several reasons. One of which is because she’s somebody who’s confronted the stigma and has overcome it, or is struggling to overcome it. Also, because I think it’s important for people to know that, as Elizabeth Taylor said, it’s not just a minority disease. It can affect anybody. She was in a very low-risk group when she got infected.
Do people still believe they can’t get infected because they’re not part of a minority group?
Yeah, I do. I think people take chances. It’s always been difficult to encourage people to engage in safe sex. It was much easier when you saw the horrible deaths people were suffering because of sexually transmitted disease. When you don’t see that anymore, it becomes less vivid. It’s easier to imagine that it’s not going to affect you, or even if it does, that it’s not such a horrible thing.
It’s shocking to see how the attitude could change so sharply in such a short span of time.
Yeah. But I also think it’s generational. Part of the problem is that so many of the activists in the gay and African American communities who would be spokespeople for safer sex and would speak out about HIV have died. That really left a vacuum. Younger generations weren’t growing up into any kind of cultural tradition because the populations were so decimated.
Is part of your aim with this documentary to inform the younger generation that HIV/AIDS is still a very real threat?
In terms of AIDS and HIV, yes. In terms of inspirational activism of individuals who decide they want to make a difference and won’t let anything stand in their way, I hope it will be an inspiration to people of all ages. But in terms of HIV/AIDS, I think it’s important to let young people know what we witnessed.
You’ve experienced the entire arc of the AIDS epidemic -- from the initial panic to present day. But did you learn anything new or surprising while making this documentary?
I was surprised at how optimistic scientists are, based on the few functional cures that we’ve read about, including the Berlin Patient. That was new to me. I assumed that things were just going to go along the way they had been, with people getting infected and being treated with drug cocktails and managing the disease and staying alive for a decent amount of time. But the idea that scientists are actually speaking optimistically about a cure now is really exciting news and something I wasn’t aware of.
A big message in your film is that “everybody can do something.” What suggestions do you have for people who want to get involved?
There’s a wonderful group, – an offshoot of amfAR, called generationCURE, which is aimed at younger people -- getting them involved in a campaign to stay negative and find a cure in our lifetime. I think people just need to educate themselves. ‘The Battle of amfAR’ website also lists ways for people to get involved. But the first step is educating ourselves so we understand the reality of what we’re facing.