As we enter our third year of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it’s hard, especially as queer folks, to ignore the echoes of the HIV and AIDS epidemic, and nor should we. While medical advances in the treatment and prevention of HIV and AIDS have grown exponentially since the introduction of antiretroviral therapy medications (ART) in 1996, HIV has adopted this strange dichotomy of feeling like it’s simultaneously over and done with while also holding on to all of the nasty stigma and shame it held 40 years ago.
It is exactly this stigma that filmmakers Shaun Dunne and Anna Rodgers are hoping to combat with the upcoming premiere of their documentary, How To Tell A Secret, at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.
Shaun Dunne is a Dublin-based film and theatre artist whose work landed him an Audience Choice Award for Short Film at the Cork Film Festival in 2020. Dunne’s 2017 staged documentary project Rapids, on which How To Tell A Secret is based, explores the stigma surrounding HIV in Ireland through the disclosures of men and women living with HIV today.
The project, according to Dunne, was largely inspired by his relationship with HIV activist and Mr Gay Ireland 2014, Robbie Lawlor. “We were going out with each other for a while when we were younger,” Shaun said. “I was one of the people he had to tell to go get tested when he discovered his diagnosis. That story is explored deeper in the film but essentially that conversation transformed our whole relationship and it brought us so much closer.”
Lawlor was diagnosed with HIV at the age of 21 in 2013 and has since used his status to advocate for HIV awareness and destigmatisation in Ireland, even setting up the country’s first one-on-one peer support network with the social work department in the St James’ Hospital GUIDE clinic.
Dunne credits Lawlor with being a driving force: “I couldn’t have made Rapids without him. We couldn’t have made this film without him. He’s been there with us over this entire process as a consultant -checking in and helping us to make sure we’re getting things right… He’s really the heart of the work in many ways.”
When Rapids concluded its international tour in 2019, Dunne assumed that the project had reached its end.
“I thought that we were kinda done,” Dunne said. “But then Anna [Rodgers] came to see the show.”
Anna Rodgers is a documentary and film director currently partnered with Invisible Threads Films, a production company dedicated to making films that “make a difference”. When Rodgers attended a performance of Rapids in 2019, she immediately wanted to partner with Dunne to adapt the show for film.
“I went alone and was really emotionally taken with the performances. I remember thinking that the people sitting next to me in the theatre could have been the real people whose lives were being portrayed on stage. It really made me consider the secrecy and stigma still surrounding HIV but also how little I really knew about living with HIV today.”
Rodgers continued, “I’d seen one of his short films and I was interested in an artistic collaboration rather than making a film about the play. So, that is what we proposed. I suggested we merge our creative practices and apply to the Arts Council for a bursary to make a Reel Arts film together. When I think back it was a brave move on both our parts - we didn’t know each other at all!”
How To Tell A Secret, a combination of documentary and filmed theatrical performance, uses experimental storytelling to feature contributions from people who have never spoken publicly about their HIV status before. The film gives these individuals a platform to ‘come out’ about living with HIV for the first time.
When describing the duo’s unique approach to documentary storytelling in the film, Dunne said, “every story within the film is true. But the work itself is quite stylised I would say. There are abstracted elements and that had to be the case because some of our contributors needed to be hidden. But we also have a lot of fun exploring how stories are told, how stories pass through bodies, much in the same way that a virus does– so there’s maybe a layer of artistry in this documentary that hopefully makes it a special and unique watch… It’s definitely not your bogstandard approach to documentary making.”
When you hear about people’s negative reactions to disclosures, you think they really haven’t moved on...they are still stuck in the past. We wanted people to realise what life is like now, and how very different it is.
If working collaboratively with an essential stranger on an experimental piece of media about an extremely important and sensitive topic weren’t hard enough, along came the pandemic.
“The pandemic hit just as we were entering production so as you can imagine, it made things very complicated,” Rodgers reported. “We were working on a very limited budget and the various lockdowns extended our commitment to this project by a year and a half at least. Getting access to locations like medical facilities or even theatres in the early days was next to impossible. Our producer Zlata [Filiplovic] really worked miracles to make all of that happen.”
Dunne echoed his partner’s sentiments, saying: “The hardest part of making the film was that we couldn’t be together in a typical or more casual sense. Our edit was done during the Omicron wave for example, so it was entirely online. Edits for me are always where you have the most laugh so I think sometimes Covid made things feel quite procedural or strict.”
However, despite the drawbacks imposed by the pandemic and its restrictions, both Dunne and Rodgers were able to see its positive impacts on the project as well. “Now when I watch the film,” Dunne continued. “There’s a precision to what we’ve captured and a sense of isolation that speaks to the broader themes of the work outside of this context. Covid and How To Tell A Secret are kinda entwined in some weird ways… and there was a potency in that.”
Another aspect of the film that makes it markedly different from other films on the same topic is its intentional avoidance of the AIDS crisis. “It had to be about now. I think that’s the core thing in both mine and Anna’s work. Our interests have an immediacy and we wanna move fast with them. There’s a lot of great work done from the perspective of the past but keeping this current made our project unique and urgent,” said Dunne.
When discussing the success of the recent Channel 4 mini-series It’s A Sin, Rodgers added: “When I watched… and saw the Twitter reaction afterwards I realised a lot of people don’t realise the good news about the medications available these days. When you hear about people’s negative reactions to disclosures, you think they really haven’t moved on… they are still stuck in the past. We wanted people to realise what life is like now, and how very different it is.”
While the film veers away from the AIDS crisis, it does feature a nod to Thom McGinty, better known as The Diceman, an actor and street performer who frequented Dublin’s Grafton Street where he performed as a mime until his death in 1995 due to complications from AIDS. The film pays tribute to Thom through the use of archival footage and a performance from Dublin-based drag performer Veda (Enda McGrattan) who came out as HIV Positive in 2019.
“We knew that [Enda] could lip sync, after years of drag performances in The George, so we had the idea of getting Enda to perform the iconic Late Late Show interview that Thom McGinty did shortly before he died. Enda brought a lot of creativity and talented people to the table to help plan a really emotional performance on Grafton street -it’s one of my favourite memories of the filmmaking process,” Rodgers recalled.
Enda, a HIV activist in their own right, surprised audiences in a 2021 appearance on the Six O’Clock Show when they reported that “20 percent of new [HIV] diagnoses are women. It’s very much a problem.” Dunne and Rodgers tackle this problem head on in their film.
“We really wanted to capture the complexity of why women don’t go public - so much of it was about protecting those around them. Erin Nugent in HIV Ireland provided us with a lot of guidance on how to manage this topic sensitively. We didn’t want the fact that women weren’t speaking face-to-camera to put an implicit pressure on women at the same time - it’s a very personal decision and taking part in media isn’t for everyone,” Rodgers said.
With HIV numbers in Ireland being the highest that they have ever been, those involved in the project hope it will educate audiences and teach them that HIV today is a manageable health condition.
“HIV is something that can affect anyone. We’d like the film to help break down some of that tired stigma and open people’s eyes to the realities of HIV,” Rodgers concluded.
“It would be great if it was seen by young people so they can be a bit more aware of HIV still being out there, protect themselves, get tested regularly and ask partners to test.”
Dunne added, “My hopes are that the film’s contributors will be supported and loved by our audiences. I want them to feel further encouraged to live a life that’s shame free - and I hope that there’s a ripple effect then that will encourage others too.”
The Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival takes place from February 23 to March 6. You can watch How To Tell A Secret at 6:30 PM on Monday, February 28.