Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt
Preserved by the Academy Film Archive, Milestone Film & Video and the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project, a partnership between Outfest and UCLA Film & Television Archive.
1989 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature
Interfilm Award at the 1990 Berlin International Film Festival
GLAAD Media Award Outstanding TV Documentary 1990
Peabody Award 1990
“History will record that in the last quarter of the 20th century a new and deadly virus emerged and that the one nation on earth with the resources, knowledge, and institutions to respond to the epidemic failed to do so. History will further record that our nation’s failure was based on ignorance, prejudice, greed and fear not in the heartlands of America but within the oval office and the halls of Congress.” — Cleve Jones, The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt
A tremendous, handmade monument to lives lost to AIDS, the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt demonstrated that grief and activism together could manifest a powerful symbol of resilience. Winner of the 1989 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, this moving film explores the human stories obscured by statistics, examining the cross-section of identities affected by HIV/AIDS, as well as efforts to combat the stigma, misinformation, and political obstruction that deepened the crisis.
The AIDS Quilt was started by a group of volunteers called the NAMES Project in a San Francisco storefront in July 1987. By the spring of 1988, the Quilt had grown to include 3,000 panels, each a handmade memorial to an AIDS victim. Producer Bill Couturie saw the proposed documentary as “a way to make a film that would be both hard-hitting and affecting… I thought from the start the film itself should be a patchwork quilt. America is a patchwork quilt. People with AIDS are a patchwork quilt. The virus is indiscriminate. So people who otherwise would never have been connected are bound together.”
In a case of parallel evolution, filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman had felt similarly moved when they saw the Quilt displayed for the first time in Washington in October 1987. “Up to that point,” Epstein said, “nobody had seen the Quilt in its entirety, and the effect was, needless to say, awesome. We were there at dawn and we were standing around this huge canvas grid, and the names of the dead were being read. And by the time the Quilt was fully unfolded several hours later there was something before you that was so beautiful and yet so horrifying. Entering this Quilt, entering this weave of lives, interacting with the other people there, made you feel the weight of this epidemic. We were just stunned and awed by the scale of the Quilt and the intimacy of it.” Epstein recalls, “I’d never seen anything like that. We were with our friend [and fellow filmmaker] Peter Adair and he said, ‘Somebody has to make a film about this.’ Jeffrey and I ran with that and ran back to San Francisco and met with the NAMES Project folks and started delving into all the material.”
The Quilt that Epstein and Friedman saw in Washington, DC in 1987 was composed of 1,920 panels. When the pair filmed its unfolding in October 1988 for Common Threads, the AIDS Quilt had grown to 8,288 individual handmade panels. The documentary won the Oscar® for Best Documentary, but more importantly, has remained an emotional, vibrant story of a tremendous tragedy that evolved into one of the great protest movements in American history.
United States. 1989. 79 minutes. 16mm. Color. In English. Winner: 1989Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Interfilm Award at the 1990 Berlin International Film Festival. GLAAD Media Award Outstanding TV Documentary 1990. Peabody Award 1990. A Telling Pictures and The Couturie Company Production. Directed and Edited by Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Produced by Bill Couturie, Robert Epstein, and Jeffrey Friedman. Directors of Photography: Dyanna Taylor and Jean de Segonzac. Additional Cinematography: Edward Lachman. Narrated by Dustin Hoffman. Music composed by Bobby McFerrin. Music performed by Bobby McFerrin and Voicestra. Writers: Robert Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, and Cindy Ruskin
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