While receiving amfAR’s Award of Inspiration at the AIDS nonprofit’s Venice gala on Sunday night, Ava DuVernay recalled the first time she fell in love with movies.

“It was the original ‘West Side Story,’” DuVernay said. “The colors, the Brown people, the romance, warring gangs, dance fighting, Maria and Tony… it ignited my passion for film and led me to leave Compton, Calif. and speak to all of you in a 16th century old school building in Venice.”

Held at the Scuola Grande della Misericordia, an imposing building featuring walls embossed with centuries-old Venetian art, this year’s amfAR Venezia kicked off with a cocktail hour where guests could admire the art that would be on auction later that night, including pieces from Andy Warhol and Slim Aarons. The event included performances from Leona Lewis and Rita Ora, backed by a live string orchestra, while guests including Bella Thorne, Taika Waititi, Milla Jovovich, Kate Beckinsale, Michelle Rodriguez and Luke Evans enjoyed a three-course meal consisting of chilled tomato soup, roasted sea bass and Bellini-flavored ice cream.

Milla Jovovich attends the amfAR Gala Venezia 2023 presented by Mastercard and Red Sea International Film Festival. Getty Images

DuVernay, whose newest film, “Origin,” is premiering in competition at the Venice Film Festival on Wednesday, discussed the direct connection the movie has to amfAR’s mission.

“How many women and people of color and members of the LBGTQ community have been similarly inspired, but their passion and creativity doesn’t have a viable road to fulfill their passions?” DuVernay observed. “My next film, ‘Origin,’ explores this idea — most notably, why we as a human race treat some people as less than others and how these ideas are ingrained in the systems and everyday habits that we might not be aware of.”

As she delved into stats regarding the 40 million people who currently live with HIV worldwide, DuVernay didn’t shy away from shutting down some unneeded chatter at a table near the front. “Excuse me, friends!” DuVernay exclaimed. “Hey, hi! Did you know that HIV is a social justice issue? Yeah, it is. Just wanted to get your attention because that’s why we’re here tonight. It’s a social justice issue. How people are supposed to lead full and joyful lives if they do not have access to healthcare should be on top of all of our minds.”

Bella Thorne and Mark Emms attend the amfAR gala Venezia 2023 presented by Mastercard and Red Sea International Film Festival. Getty Images for amfAR

DuVernay finished her speech by saying, “Creativity requires imagination and justice requires imagination. When you’re being creative, you imagine a world that isn’t there, and you make it so. Justice is also a space where we imagine a world that isn’t there, but we can make it so. We raise our voices, we cultivate our minds, we teach each other, we teach ourselves, we hold hands and we change.”

Throughout the night, amfAR raised $2 million, which will go directly toward AIDS research. Other auction items included a week on a private island in Spain, Chopard earrings and backstage passes at a show on Adam Lambert + Queen’s upcoming tour. As the night came to a close, Ora delivered a rousing performance of “Let You Love Me,” “I Will Never Let You Down” and “Praising You” as guests got out of their seats and turned the historic hall into a dance floor.

Rita Ora performs on stage at the amfAR gala Venezia 2023 presented by Mastercard and Red Sea International Film Festival. amfAR via Getty Images