Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, Commitment to Life focuses on the AIDS epidemic of the early 1980s. After cases of a strange immune disorder amongst gay men begin to mount, America feels frozen. Unsure of its cause or how its transmitted, the nation begins to panic, especially as notable celebrities such as Rock Hudson and Easy-E fall prey to its infection. At a time when it was needed most, the APLA is developed in order to offer hope to a population that was dying off in record numbers.
In Commitment to Life, Schwarz does a marvelous job of unraveling the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s. Interestingly, the film feels as though it bears the soul of a people in grief. Fueled by hurt and a quest for hope, Schwarz delves into history and allows it to tell its own story in an authentic manner. Although over 40 years have passed since the disease began to ravage the country, Commitment shows that the scars of the nation?s delayed response are still very real. In fact, coming at a time when we, as a culture, have just begun to emerge from our own epidemic, the film feels strangely current. Although one does not mean to compare the two diseases themselves, witnessing a nation in widespread panic that?s debating the relevancy of safety precautions (including protection and self-isolation) seems eerily similar to recent circumstances.
What?s most revealing about Commitment to Life though is the dedication of Hollywood to support those in need. And this is not simply a casual mention. At a time when tens of thousands are dying at the hands of AIDS, Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor, David Geffen, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Joan Rivers and countless others all stood up to support the LGBTQ community and raise awareness (and money) on their behalf. What?s amazing though is that, not only do the biggest stars support those that they know and love, but studios rally around the cause as well. To see Universal Studios and Paramount stand behind a population in peril in the way that they do during the AIDS epidemic is nothing short of remarkable.
With this in mind, Commitment also highlights the culture of shame that followed those afflicted with AIDS at this time. Fearing for their livelihoods, Schwarz identifies that everyone who contracted HIV did their utmost to keep that information a secret. Forced back into a closet (of sorts), there was a genuine concern that they would lose their jobs if anyone found out their situation. Part of this weight of shame was a result of a graceless church culture that did what they could to emphasize the ?sinful behaviour? associated with sexuality. Part of it came simply from a lack of general awareness. But, regardless of the reason, the power of shame weighed heavily on those who were suffering.
But this is what makes the Hollywood response so amazing.
Standing arm and arm with the falling friends, the Hollywood community offered grace and strength when no one else would. A Church that claims to help those in need turned their back on the ?sinners?. Widespread paranoia about the disease meant that hospitals refused to offer places of healing or treatment. But Hollywood stood up on their behalf to help change the narrative. And it worked.
Straightforward in its narrative, Commitment to Life offers no fancy camera tricks or sneaky storytelling devices. But that?s exactly the point. Schwarz wants his audience to understand the truth about this trauma and he?s willing to delve into the echoes of pain to do so.
And, without question, that takes Commitment.
Commitment to Life premiered at SBIFF 2023 on Saturday, February 11, 2023.