Secrets and lives: People with HIV share their stories in new film

Review of How To Tell A Secret, in cinemas, Dec 1, cert 15a, ****
Secrets and lives: People with HIV share their stories in new film

Eva Jane Gaffney and Shaun Dunne in How To Tell A Secret

SECRETS are not always a bad thing. They can protect people from danger and ridicule. But what happens if you want to share your secret?

How To Tell A Secret is a new documentary that asks its participants to tell their secrets, but also has a deep respect for those who aren’t ready or able to share their most intimate stories. It mixes standard documentary filmmaking and theatre to talk about HIV.

From the outset, the film is an eye-opener and an education. I didn’t know Ireland has a higher rate of new cases of HIV per year than any other country in Europe. I didn’t realise many people living in direct provision have HIV and live in fear of others finding out.

Through my naivety, I didn’t understand the stigma still attached to the condition, but that is very much an issue. Society has come to expect it to be an illness attached to the gay community, but that notion is outdated.

I knew HIV was undetectable and untransmittable; what I didn’t realise is it is easier to treat than diabetes, but some people are still too afraid to seek the right help.

Shaun Dunne and Anna Rodgers direct the documentary. Dunne is a writer and an actor. A few years ago, he wrote Rapids, a play that told real stories of people with HIV. Actors performed the stories to protect the anonymity of the real people.

The documentary builds on the play by introducing us to actors who perform real stories. Jade Jordan, Lauren Larkin, and Eva-Jane Gaffney share the secrets of migrant women, they reveal to us how some people first learned they had the illness, and tell the stories of both men and women. In one moving scene, Jordan stands in for a migrant woman and mimes as we hear the actual woman’s voice. It’s her story, she says; she wants the world to hear her voice even if she isn’t ready to share her face.

We meet activist Robbie Lawlor, whose diagnosis at a young age was initially devastating. He dreamed of moving to Australia, but his diagnosis meant he was no longer medically fit to get a visa. Australia has strict rules about newcomers not putting a strain on their health system.

Robbie thought it was the end of the world. His medication made him sick. He wanted to die. Now, he is healthy and a prominent HIV spokesperson who says lack of education contributed to the doomsday scenario that ran through his mind in the early days.

We are also introduced to drag performer and artist Enda McGrattan, AKA Veda, who swore he would never tell anyone about his diagnosis. He kept his promise for years, but by finally sharing his secret, he was liberated.

The documentary pays tribute to Thom McGinty, the Diceman, one of the first people in Ireland to reveal his status publicly.

Dunne’s sensitivity and gentleness shine through as he works with the contributors. He never tells people what to do but softly encourages them as they find out how to tell their secrets. We are shockingly bad at HIV education in this country, and the stigma is still too strong. Hopefully, this evocative documentary will help ensure the need for secrecy ends.

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