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'The Battle of amfAR:' An Important Little Piece of Propaganda


amFAR's self-funded documentary makes some good points, but risks getting it twisted.

I hate to call a good movie a piece of propaganda, but when a documentary about an organization is single-handedly financed by that organization itself--well, there's no way to avoid using the word "propaganda."

Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, The Battle of amfAR is just that, a documentary commissioned, bankrolled, and promoted by amfAR (The Foundation for AIDS Research) itself. That's not to say it doesn't have a point of view or a take a nuanced look at the AIDS crisis, but it also heavily promotes amFAR's role in managing that crisis.

amFar has always had a flair for publicity. Co-founder Dr. Mathilde Krim, a virus researcher, was conveniently married to Arthur Krim, a film head honcho who served as the chairman of United Artists and Orion Pictures. With Arthur's connections to the worlds of celebrity and power, she reached out to amfAR co-founder Elizabeth Taylor, who immediately said yes, seeing the opportunity to leverage her fame (something she had not previously embraced) for a good cause.

This cinematic casts Mathilde as a scrappy upstart virologist from the world of academia who noticed this curious affliction among the gay men of New York City, and Elizabeth Taylor as her fabulous new famous friend. Present-day interviews with Mathilde and other amfAR activists and researchers are cut with 80's-tastic press conferences of Liz in all her glory, delivering consistently dramatic and touching and Oscar-worthy speeches into the big, puffy foam microphones.Seriously, The Battle of amfAR is worth checking out simply for the evolution of Liz's 80's style: with her hair balloons and her tan, she trends towards Snooki status, particularly as her makeup gets thicker and messier. The one constant: her amazing jewels.

The The Battle of amfAR screening, held on Wednesday at NYC's SVA Theater, drew some star power, including Uma Thurman, Harry Belafonte, Miss Universe Olivia Culpo and Miss USA Nana Meriwether but it wasn't quite as grand as Liz's old parties though certainly noteworthy, and perfect for amfAR's scrap book.

But amfAR's love of publicity may cross a line when it comes to claiming they've financed a cure for AIDS. "Currently, amfAR is focused principally on cure-based initiatives," amfAR chairman Kenneth Cole told me on the red carpet. "amfAR has had an impact, a role in most of the critical accomplishments that we've witnessed recently. Today, everybody can render them relatively safe to contracting HIV, whether they're gay or straight or female, pregnant woman or unborn child. We've witnessed two people being clinically cured of the virus, the body is cured of the virus completely, both of which came about from amfAR initiatives and research."

The two people he's speaking of are "The Berlin Patient" Timothy Brown and, more recently, a Mississippi baby born HIV-positive but who now seems to be cured.

Another amfAR activist, former Poz magazine editor Regan Hoffman, told me that we need to be careful about using the word "cure." "There are different types of cures, functional and eradicative," said Hoffman. "A functional cure would mean that somebody could have HIV but have it controlled in the body without it being eliminated entirely. There are lots of ways the cure could actually come about."

HBO Documentary Films picked up The Battle of amfAR and will air it in December of this year, to coincide with World AIDS Day, meaning that good or bad amfAR's story will get the airtime and mainstream attention it deserves.

UPDATE: The Battle of amfAR filmmakers Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman sent over the following statement to this story: "The film was, indeed, Executive Produced by amfAR Board Chair Kenneth Cole, whose idea it was to tell the inspiring story of Dr. Mathilde Krim. However, the film was not funded by amfAR, but by a number of individuals -- many of whom are long-time supporters of the organization and some of whom are Board members -- and by HBO. The organization had no creative input or approval of our film other than assuring that the facts were correct. As the directors and producers we had full creative control and final cut."

Here's the trailer for The Battle of amfAR:

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Evan Mulvihill