It took a public health crisis for the normally Pride Week-gracing Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBTQ+ Film Festival, to stage its 44th season in an all-virtual format running from Sept. 17-27.
Among the slew of dozens of productions from 25 countries that includes plentiful premieres is the Canadian documentary “Killing Patient Zero,” which thoughtfully traces queer history amid the rise of AIDS while offering tellingly apt lessons for the current pandemic.
Making its West Coast premiere, “Killing Patient Zero” is based on Richard McKay’s book “Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic.” “Patient Zero” referred to the late Canadian flight attendant Gaëtan Dugas, who was wrongly accused of sparking the spread of AIDS in North America. The false narrative, notably mythologized in San Francisco Chronicle reporter Randy Shilts’ trailblazing book “And the Band Played On,” made Dugas a villain.
“We struggled to find a title for the film until we landed on ‘Killing Patient Zero,’” says director Laurie Lynd. “We chose it because it’s an evocative title, which will hopefully catch an audience’s eye and ear, and for me, the title suggests both killing the false negative myth of Dugas having been the so-called ‘Patient Zero,’ as well as acknowledging that this myth, this lie, killed Gaëtan Dugas’ posthumous reputation.”
Along with people who knew Dugas, who share anecdotes about him, public figures, including health care professionals, contribute commentary and insight. Most prominent among them are William Darrow, professor of public health at Florida International University, who completed the initial study identifying Dugas as an HIV carrier, and University of California, San Francisco epidemiologist Andrew Moss, who called into question its findings.
Dugas, one of several carriers of HIV among multiple clusters of sexual partners researched in the study, was identified in it as “Patient O,” for “out of California,” which led to misconstruing of the letter “O” to represent a zero, incorrectly suggesting he was the first case. So began the ugly blame game against Dugas, which sounds unpleasantly similar to the scapegoating of certain groups during today’s COVID-19 crisis.
“I think the greatest lesson from the AIDS epidemic is the cost of bias, prejudice and ignorance,” Lynd says. “The lesson is one of not letting bias/prejudice inform what’s considered news — something I fear that can never be fully learned, and in some ways, is more deeply entrenched in our society now where everybody’s a journalist, and much of what ends up being disseminated by non-legacy media is pure bias. The other great parallel between AIDS and COVID is that human beings still seem to need to blame someone for whatever ill we are facing.”
There was initial reluctance among gay men to use condoms during the pre-exposure prophylaxis (PreP) days of the AIDS crisis, a stance Lynd understands for reasons that are explored in the film. But the current hostility among many people to wearing masks is baffling to him.
“I will never understand resistance to doing something that might help my fellow citizens,” Lynd says. “It is for this reason I wear a mask, to protect them, not me,” he says, adding, “And I’m delighted to wear a mask featuring an image of Barbra Streisand from ‘Funny Girl’ accompanied by the words, ‘Hello Gorgeous!’”
Perhaps the most troubling parallel between the deadly AIDS crisis and COVID-19, which has claimed nearly 200,000 lives in the U.S. since February, is the similar indifference, denial and inaction as well as disparaging of people thought to harbor these viruses that officials at the highest level of government have exhibited. During AIDS, the lack of public response was spotlighted in “And the Band Played On.”
Unfortunately, in the process of writing a compelling tome on AIDS, Shilts (who died in 1994 of complications from AIDS), according to Lynd, unintentionally created two groups: “good, respectable” gays vs. “bad, prodigiously sexual” gays, a category into which Dugas supposedly fell.
“I understand Shilts and (editor) Michael Denneny’s ‘doing the wrong thing for the right reason,’ and yes, using the Patient Zero myth to promote ‘Band’ destroyed one man’s legacy and perpetuated the stereotype of gay men as careless, promiscuous hedonists,” Lynd says. “But I believe that that PR stunt propelled the book to bestseller lists, where it belonged and needed to be to help wake up North America to the cost of the Reagan administration’s homophobia.”
Serious damage done during both public health crises has extended beyond lives lost to the grief suffered by families of the victims of the viruses. Dugas’ family, especially harmed by the unwarranted notoriety associated with Gaëtan, has maintained a firm silence.
“I think of the family’s silence as a principled stand, one that I deeply respect,” Lynd says. “It remains a concern of mine that the film will rekindle for the Dugas family and friends the difficult time when the ‘Patient Zero’ story was first erroneously circulated, and my fervent hope is that the greater good, in rehabilitating his name, will justify the story’s re-emergence.”
Frameline44 runs Sept. 17-27 at frameline.org. Tickets are $8-$12 per screening, $250 and up for passes.
Bay Area premiere highlights
“Beautiful Dreamer”: The issue of parenting through surrogacy is raised in the context of a Bay Area-style blended family in this locally filmed dramedy that was adapted from Patricia Cotter’s play “The Surrogate.”
“Cowboys”: Steve Zahn delivers a knockout performance as Troy, a well-meaning rural father whose 11-year-old Daddy’s girl Joe (impressive trans newcomer Sasha Knight) reveals to Troy that he’s Daddy’s boy during a child visitation at his ex’s house. The irrepressible need for Joe to be himself sends the two “cowboys” on a moving odyssey through the wilds of Montana.
“Minyan”: Samuel H. Levine, a standout on Broadway in “The Inheritance,” is the appealing focus of Eric Steel’s well-done debut feature film as David, a closeted Yeshiva student from a Russian Jewish immigrant family experiencing a sexual and spiritual awakening in circa-1986 New York.
“The Obituary of Tunde Johnson”: The intersectionality of, racism, police brutality and homophobia anchors this glossy, on-edge drama set in Los Angeles in which a gay Black teenager (Steven Silver) is mired in a heart-wrenching love triangle and cycle of awakenings from a nightmarish death at the hands of cops.
“Two of Us (Deux)”: Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevallier are masterful as Nina and Mado, respectively, two older lesbians in France who have never disclosed their relationship to Mado’s adult children, which has fateful consequences when a sudden crisis leaves the children in charge of their mother.