Winner of the 1989 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Common Threads was made at the height of the AIDS crisis and tells of the devastating human cost of the disease in the US. The film takes its name from a giant patchwork quilt created in memory of the victims to be laid on the lawn opposite The White House to highlight the number of people who had died from AIDS and that they were not forgotten. While this perhaps suggests that the film carries a political edge, this is rarely the case as the focus is predominantly on a small number of victims via stories from their loved ones. As you would expect, the stories range across both genders, all lifestyles and include both the young and old.
Narrated sparingly by Dustin Hoffman, whilst charting the progress of AIDS from its first cases in June 1981 we are lead through the next 7 years picking up personal cases along the way. With some interesting archive news footage showing the lack of understanding of the disease in the early days, the US government’s neglect in acknowledging the disease and funding education and research into it is well illustrated without the film taking too much of a side. It is easy to forget in our tolerant and liberal modern Western world that even 25-30 years ago, severe discrimination was alive and well and it was not until the disease passed into the heterosexual population that middle America demanded answers and people were finally heard.
The stories themselves are heartbreaking and the relatively quick (by today’s medicated standards) death sentence that AIDS represented was utterly terrifying and horribly real. As one person says – he had reached a point where all of his friends were dead and only acquaintances remained.
Perhaps the film’s only downfall is that it never really addresses the effect of AIDS outside of the US. At one point it talks about the global diagnosis and death rates but it never expands on this. However, given the title and that the AIDS timeline began in Los Angeles, I think it can be forgiven.