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How To Tell A Secret: New film explores HIV disclosure in modern Ireland

Co-directed by Shaun Dunne and Anna Rodgers, the film looks at the reality of disclosing your HIV status in Ireland, using real-life stories.

HOW DO YOU tell a story?

How do stories move between people?

How do you tell a story you’ve been taught to keep a secret?

The Irish documentary How To Tell A Secret, which is in selected cinemas from 1 December, is a moving and experimental portrayal of living with HIV in Ireland and the many ways that people approach HIV disclosure.

Co-directed by Shaun Dunne and Anna Rodgers, and produced by Zlata Filipovic, the film explores the varied experiences of people navigating how to disclose their HIV status and the nature of storytelling itself. The documentary, which premiered at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival earlier this year, recently won Best Documentary Film at the Irish Film Festival London.

Drawing on a play by Dunne called Rapids that debuted in 2017 and later toured around Ireland, it merges theatre and cinema into a unique on-screen experience that its creators describe as a hybrid film.

When documentary director Anna Rodgers sat in the audience of a performance of Rapids several years ago, she was “blown away”.

“It really affected me emotionally,” Rodgers said in an interview with The Journal.

Afterwards, she arranged a meeting with Shaun Dunne to discuss translating the play into a film.

“At the time, theatre was starting to move online as well, so we wanted to avoid making a piece of theatre on screen. We wanted to make a film,” Rodgers said.

We talked about making something that was a hybrid film that moved between documentary and more abstract reconstructions of the testimony that was gathered for Rapids, and then the new testimony that we gathered for How To Tell A Secret.

Invisible Thread / YouTube

“We knew that we were dealing with something that not all people could speak openly about. There were some people, really important characters in the film, that could speak and tell their own stories and self-represent, but then there were a lot of people that didn’t feel that they were ready yet to do that.

“We knew we had to find a language for the film and we had to find a way of doing it that was a bit different.”

Dunne, who also features in the film, is joined on screen by HIV activist Robbie Lawlor, as well as by actors Jade Jordan, Lauren Larkin and Eva-Jane Gaffney, who take on the stories of people living with HIV.

“For me, the story really is looking at disclosure overall, which is the act of telling someone about your HIV, but at the same time, we, as filmmakers and artists, are asking how can we represent these experiences,” Dunne said.

“There are people who were looking towards coming out about living with HIV and then there’s a community of people who are looking to serve those testimonies. That became the core through-line in terms of how we navigate each of the scenes.”

JadeJordan Jade Jordan in How To Tell A Secret

For most of the documentary, the storytelling is acutely vocal, using a range of techniques like voiceover, lip sync and repetition, to obscure who is physically telling a story and who the story belongs to.

At other times, it quietens and uses striking visuals or physical movement to do the talking.

“You see things like us workshopping material, putting things on film, and then as we move through the piece, those representations become more and more realised and more actualised,” Dunne said.

One of the leading concepts from the play which I think we really elevated in the film is the idea that stories move through bodies in the same way that a virus does.

“I think Anna and I had a lot of fun in representing that cinematically and in the collaboration with our editor as well, playing with devices that you can only realise really well in cinema, like the lip sync motif that runs through the film.”

Rodgers agreed: “One of the things around the virus moving through bodies or the story bodies was that we wanted to play with that idea of representation, that people are literally holding or carrying people’s stories for them.”

“Over the years with documentaries, there’s been a lot of tropes, especially with LGBT-related stories, where you see people in shadows, or we see people’s hands and not their faces and things like that,” she explained.

“Sometimes we played with the language of that, showing close-ups of people’s mouths, but then we do reveal them.

One of the things that happened when I went to see the play was I wasn’t quite sure who in the play was real and who wasn’t and who was telling their own story and who wasn’t.

“It really provoked me to question my own assumptions about HIV and perhaps the prejudice that we all carry, that you think certain things about it because you’ve maybe inherited that from years and years of absorbing the way that HIV stories and AIDS stories were represented in the media. I thought that was something that would be really interesting to bring into the film.”

RobbieLawlor HIV activist Robbie Lawlor in How To Tell A Secret

Prejudices or misconceptions about HIV and AIDS are still prevalent, especially in relation to who can be infected with HIV and how it spreads.

Anyone can contract the virus, regardless of sexual orientation – in 2020, gay and bisexual men accounted for 45% of new diagnoses made in England, while heterosexual men and women together accounted for 50%.

With medication, the risk of a person transmitting HIV to someone else can be brought down to zero. If the level of HIV in the body – the viral load – becomes so low that it cannot be detected in a blood test, there is no risk of passing on HIV to partners.

That message of U=U (undetectable = untransmittable) features at an important moment in the film.

The documentary is interested in portraying the experiences of people living with HIV in Ireland in the present day, but it also pays tribute to an important figure from the past.

Thom McGinty, an Irish actor known as The Diceman, was an iconic street performer in Dublin in the 1980s and early 1990s, but passed away in 1995 from complications of AIDS.

“In the play, Shaun has some lines where people had asked him to mention and honour The Diceman and that really stood out in my mind,” Rodgers said.

“I really remember the Diceman because I went to school in town so I would have seen him loads when I was growing up, and then suddenly, he was gone,” she said.

“When we started talking about the film, we knew that we wanted to make it a really contemporary story and base it on the here and now, the experience of having HIV today, which is very, very different to the past, but we did want to acknowledge and honour the history of the AIDS crisis and what happened here.”

The filmmakers had invited HIV advocate and drag queen Veda, or Enda McGrattan, to take part in the film – “we knew that they were amazing at lip syncing, because they’re a drag queen, they do that all the time in the George!” – and later found that The Diceman’s legacy had an important influence on Veda’s art.

“What we didn’t realise was Veda had this kind of deep spiritual connection to Tom McGinty from when Veda was a teenager and going into town,” Dunne said.

“It was a real merging of thought and experience, which made the whole thing feel very charged for us,” he said.

“It’s a real honour, I think, to pay tribute to somebody, from Veda’s perspective, and from ours as filmmakers, but from Veda having watched Thom on the streets of Grafton Street and their drag aesthetic being inspired by Thom’s – it represents that relationship that’s very, very, very special.”

He explained that it “thematically corresponds to what we’re doing overall in the film, because our film is all about that”.

“It’s all about influence and things moving between people – whether it’s a story, or an energy, or inspiration.”

How To Tell A Secret will be available to watch at selected cinemas across the country from 1 December (World Aids Day). For more information and to buy tickets, see here.

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