EXCLUSIVE: When AIDS first emerged in the United States in the early 1980s, Los Angeles became one of the cities immediately impacted. The new documentary Commitment to Life shows how L.A.’s gay community and allies mobilized to fight the disease despite a lack of funding, intense fear about AIDS, and an administration in Washington that would not confront the epidemic for political reasons.
The film directed by Jeffrey Schwarz (Tab Hunter Confidential, I Am Divine) holds its world premiere on Saturday at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Combining fresh interviews and archival material, Commitment to Life examines the critical role that AIDS Project Los Angeles played in raising money for research, helping those who had contracted HIV-AIDS, and educating gay people and others in the city about how to reduce their risk of exposure.
“We put out pamphlet after pamphlet after pamphlet about how it was transmitted,” former APLA executive director Bill Misenhimer explains in the exclusive clip above, “and what you needed to avoid.”
Leaders of the nonprofit, founded in 1983 by Max Drew, Nancy Cole Sawaya, Matt Redman and Erv Munro, quickly realized they could leverage a resource unique to Hollywood to fight the disease: a big community of stars. Elizabeth Taylor was the best-known personality who joined the battle, but so did many others, including Joan Rivers, Morgan Fairchild, Alison Arngrim from Little House on the Prairie, and Zelda Rubenstein, the diminutive actress who played the clairvoyant in the movie Poltergeist.
Rubenstein appeared in PSAs aimed at encouraging gay men to adopt safer sex practices. You can see an excerpt of those ads in the clip above.
“Commitment to Life reconstructs the virus’ devastating march and the city that rose to fight it,” according to a description of the film. “Like the virus itself, the story winds through gated communities and neighborhoods of color, government offices and university labs, hospital suites and studio soundstages to tell a story of courage and sacrifice — as well as one of discrimination and unequal treatment.”
Schwarz is director and editor of Commitment to Life; Aimée Flaherty and Schwarz produce. Ron Sylvester serves as executive producer, and Robert James Wood II as co-executive producer. Executive producer for APLA Health is Craig Thompson. Co-producer is Taki Oldham, associate producer Michael Stabile, and supervising producer for APLA Health is Craig Bowers. The composer is Allyson Newman, with the participation of Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles; the cinematographer is Adam Jason Finmann.
Commitment to Life features key interviews with Jewel Thais-Williams, co-founder, Minority AIDS Project; HIV-AIDS activist Phill Wilson; Karamo Brown, Queer Eye cast member & HIV/AIDS educator; Dr. Michael Gottlieb, physician and former APLA Board Member; Bruce Vilanch, writer and comedian; Jeffrey Katzenberg, former chairman, Walt Disney Studios and APLA Board Member; Bill Misenhimer, former APLA executive director; Robert Contreras, co-founder, Bienestar; Torie Osborn, former executive director, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; Rev. Steve Pieters, former field director of AIDS Ministry, Metropolitan Community Churches; and Bamby Salcedo, president, TransLatin Coalition.
Watch the exclusive clip above.
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