In a career that has spanned more than thirty years, the work of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman has been honored with two Academy Awards, five Emmy Awards and three Peabody Awards. Recently released by Kino Lorber, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman Collection brings together three of their films: Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), Where Are We? Our Trip Through America (1992) and Paragraph 175 (2000). Newly remastered and on Blu-ray. The three films look and sound better than ever. Special features are available as noted.

Produced with HBO, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt marked the first film Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman produced and directed together. Made at the height of the AIDS crisis, Common explores the devastating cost of a largely misunderstood disease. The film takes its name from a huge patchwork quilt made in memory of the growing number of victims. It will be laid opposite the White House.

Narrated by actor Dustin Hoffman, the film charts the early of the AIDS crisis. From the first cases in June 1981 through the next seven years, archival news clips show the American governments refusal to mention AIDS, let alone offer funding for research or encourage education. It was only when the disease began affecting the heterosexual community that things began to change.

Along the way, the film follows the stories of five individuals who have memorial panels on the quilt. The lives presented showcase the various at-risk groups who suffered most in the early days of the pandemic. In addition to three gay men, there’s twelve-year-old David Mandell Jr. a hemophiliac and Robert Perryman, a heterosexual, African American and former intravenous drug user. Hearing family members, friends and lovers tell their stories is difficult. While each person’s background is different, some similarities are heartbreakingly similar: the sudden diagnosis, lack of information and the futile battle against the disease. One man explains, he’s reached the point where all his friends had died. At the time AIDS was a true death sentence. A little more than thirty years later, Common Threads serves as a stark reminder of just how far we have come in the fight against AIDS.

Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

The following special features are included:

  • Audio Commentary by filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
  • Vito Russo’s ACT UP Demonstration (1988)
  • Then and Now (1981-2004) Directed by Epstein and Friedman (43 min.)
  • Vito Russo: Pre-interview footage

After the success of Common Threads and at the end of the first Iraq War, Rob and Jeffrey take an eighteen-day road trip through the American South. The result, Where Are We? Our Trip Through America offers an enlightening, occasionally funny portrait of Americans living their lives. New to me, it was a refreshing watch after the overwhelming sadness of the prior film. There are uncomfortable moments. A successful restaurant owner in Mississippi seems kindly enough. It comes as a shock that she is paying her black workers of many years, just over $3.50 an hour. Foretelling American politics, an older gentleman blames the “Leftist” media for the erosion of American values:

“Turn America back to an honest, god-fearing place.”
“Is there any hope of that happening?”
“Not without a revolution.”

One wonders what he would think of America today. One of the most humorous moments arises during a visit to Graceland. A woman there is passionate about everything and anything having to do with Elvis Presley. To keep the woman happy, her husband has built a mini-Graceland in their backyard! Clearly, love knows no bounds.

People across the spectrum discuss their desire for happiness and their hopes for the future of America. Despite our vast differences, the desire for happiness connects us all. It would be interesting to revisit some of the interviewees today. Do they still live in the same location? Have there personal and political views changed?

The following special features are available:

  • Where Are We? Deleted Scenes (with optional audio commentary)

The last film in the collection Paragraph 175, examines the horrifying stories of over 100,000 homosexuals imprisoned and killed during the holocaust. An under discussed aspect of Hitler’s regime, homosexuality was considered “catching” starting in 1930’s Germany. Precipitated by whispers of homosexuality in Hitler’s ranks, an old statute criminalizing sex between men, known as paragraph 175, was not only reinstated in 1935, but broadened and harsher. Now men accused of sex acts with another man could be prosecuted. They were forced to wear pink triangles, making them easier to locate/

The idea for the film came from Rob Epstein’s and Jeffrey Friedman’s meeting with historian Klaus Muller, who had been researching the subject matter. Mueller serves as the interviewer in Germany. The narrator, actor Rupert Everett, gently provides historical facts. Lesbians were considered “curable,” due to the Nazi view of women as “vessels of motherhood.” However, its reported here that two were sent to concentration camps. Many chose exile, such as Annette Eick, who escaped to England and tells her story here. Others chose marriage to a gay man.

The other interviewees are six frail and elderly men who survived their time in concentration camps. Most haven’t shared their memories in fifty years, afraid to tell people their backstory. Paragraph 175 provides a document of history that should not be forgotten and a story of courage that should be applauded.

The following special features are available:

  • Audio Commentary by Epstein and Friedman
  • Additional interviews with Phillippe Swab and Kitty Fisher
  • Original Trailer