In 1987, when nearly 50,000 Americans had already succumbed to AIDS, some friends gathered in a San Francisco storefront and began piecing together a quilt of panels bearing the names of those they had lost. Today there are almost 13,000 panels and the quilt covers 14 acres. Common Threads, the 1989 Oscar winner for Best Feature Documentary, focuses on five of those names, which belong to a child hemophiliac, an IV drug user, and three gay men.
With the help of Dustin Hoffman’s narration and a beautiful score by Bobby McFerrin, directors Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman put faces on the names by letting the victims’ families reminisce. We hear the tapes that Dr. Tom Waddell, an Olympic athlete, made to his little girl as he was dying; the parents of a hemophiliac, David Mandell Jr., recall how they cared for their son, only to sit by finally, ”watching the heart monitor cease.”
The stories are terrifically moving without manipulation — the viewer is likely to cry more than anyone onscreen — but the feelings that hit hardest are anger and frustration. Epstein and Friedman include news snippets that show the country’s early, brutal indifference toward the disease. The Moral Majority calls it ”God’s punishment for the gay life-style.” A motherly figure complains that ”All this sympathy for AIDS victims just really bothers me.”
The tape ends after 1988, telling us that 55,388 Americans have died (as of the middle of this summer the figure had climbed to 87,644). Hoffman reports that by 1987, ”the national debate over how to confront the epidemic had begun.” But these filmmakers are trying to pierce the national conscience, not to soothe it: ”For those who already had the virus,” says Hoffman, ”the years of denial and neglect continued to take their toll.” A