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Film / Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt

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Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt is a 1989 film directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman.

It is a documentary about the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, using as its hook the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The film interweaves the stories of five people who died of AIDS and were memorialized on the quilt. The five victims include three gay men (Dr. Tom Waddell, Jeffrey Cevsik, and David C. Campbell), one man who contracted the disease through IV drug use (Robert Perryman), and one hemophiliac boy who contracted the disease through blood transfusions (David Mandell Jr.). Their stories are told through their loved ones, while, in a second narrative track, stock footage and captions trace the steadily rising AIDS death toll of the 1980s.

Bobby McFerrin—yes, the "Don't Worry, Be Happy" guy—performed the soundtrack. Jeffrey Cevsik's story is told through his lover Vito Russo, who died of AIDS in 1990. Russo was a film historian who wrote a book called The Celluloid Closet, which Epstein and Friedman made into their next documentary film.

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Tropes:

  • The Cameo: David Mandell was a big fan of ALF. One of the clips in the movie shows Mandell, wearing ALF pajamas and clutching an ALF doll, getting a personal video message from ALF himself.
  • Death of a Child: One of the five victims is a 12-year-old boy, David Mandell, who died of AIDS after contracting the illness through a blood transfusion.
  • Documentary: The AIDS epidemic, as told through the stories of five people who died of the disease.
  • Due to the Dead: The entire concept of the AIDS Quilt, a memorial to the victims of AIDS.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: As Sallie Perryman tells about how her husband died, the camera shows a sickbed (presumably Robert's), then points out the window to show rain falling.
  • The Ken Burns Effect: Used heavily throughout the film with stills, starting with the first shot of the movie in which the camera zooms in on a photo of one of the victims as a child.
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  • Narrator: Dustin Hoffman provides a fairly limited voice narration, mostly noting various milestones in the history of the AIDS epidemic.
  • The Nothing After Death: Discussed Trope, as Vito Russo says that he'd like to think he'll see David again, but in reality he's convinced that there's nothing after death, so you have to make the most of it.
  • Shout-Out: David Campbell's partner, Vito Russo the film historian, notes casually how the two of them really liked the movie Two for the Road.
  • Stock Footage: A whole lot, mostly of various news reports that trace the history of the AIDS crisis, including coverage of Rock Hudson's illness and a 1981 interview with a doctor discussing this puzzling new disease.
  • Talking Heads: Six people—lovers/companions of four of the victims, and David Mandell's parents—tell the stories of the people they lost. David Campbell's partner Tracy Torrey gives his entire interview lying in bed; before the movie ends it notes that he died of AIDS in 1989. (Vito Russo died of AIDS in 1990 after the film had been released.)
  • Time Passes Montage: For each of the interviewees, there is a montage series of photos from childhood to adulthood.
  • Video Credits: Not something you often see in a documentary, but at the end, a section of the credits labeled "Storytellers" shows the names and photos of the interview subjects. Tracy Torrey's credit notes that he died in 1989.
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