The inaugural unfolding of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on the National Mall in 1987 was the event that inspired filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman to make their 1990 Academy-Award winning documentary, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. Nearly 30 years later, Rob still remembers the day as “an indescribable experience. I don’t recall ever being moved in that way.”

Rob and Jeff realized the story of the quilt would provide an entry point for a public Jeff describes as “largely unfamiliar with the reality of AIDS,” and make it possible for them to hear the  stories of people  living with AIDS or those who had lost loved ones. “As documentary filmmakers, our approach has always been to use personal stories to make political and social issues vivid,” Jeff explains. Told in three parts that follow the cycle of life before AIDS, living with it, and ultimately, coping with loss, Common Threads uses news broadcasts and archival footage to provide historical and political context to individual experiences. Bobby McFerrin’s moving original Emmy-winning score complemented the heart-breaking stories that reveal the enormity of the impact of AIDs. The true consequences of the failure of those in power to take action to treat and prevent the spread of the deadly virus over many years emerges as viewers are reminded of the rising death toll: by 1989, the year the film debuted, deaths from AIDS had passed 100,000.  

Rob believes, “The humanities grant was key to launching the film,” furnishing funds that were used to produce a sample reel for their successful “pitch” to HBO. The impact of the national cable broadcast was “immediate and intense.” “We got letters,” Rob says, and Jeff continues: “we got letters from people who were able to talk about this with their families for the first time.”