As a health crisis that began when inexpensive video equipment was becoming available, the AIDS epidemic was well-chronicled by filmmakers from a fairly early point — at least within the bounds of those living in major “gay mecca” urban centers that got the bulk of alarmist public attention.
A different perspective is offered by “Quiet Heroes,” the Sundance-premiered documentary by Jenny Mackenzie, Jared Ruga and Amanda Stoddard. They cast a light on Salt Lake City, a place where general cultural and religious conservatism meant most gays lived their lives in secret, and where the initial response to AIDS sufferers was particularly negative as a result. Focusing largely on the crusading efforts of two women who, backed by a Catholic hospital’s nuns, were for a time virtually the only medical professionals who’d deign to treat the HIV-positive in the area, this warmhearted feature offers a pleasingly upbeat take on a tragic era.
The emphasis here isn’t on prejudice, death and loss, though inevitably those are major factors in the tale told. But “Heroes” prefers to underline the gestures of compassion and bravery that made all the difference both for those who survived the epidemic and those who didn’t. It’s an approach likely to serve the film well in broadcast sales, with a thorough tour of the gay fest circuit inevitable.
By pure luck, infectious disease specialist Dr. Kristen Ries had just moved to Salt Lake City when cases of the as-yet-unnamed condition were first reported elsewhere in 1981. Given her scholarly reading interests, she was already as well-schooled in the matter as she could have been when the first HIV patient turned up at her practice a year later.
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The popular paranoia and moralistic judgement that engulfed this epidemic in its first years meant that in high Mormon country, doctors and even entire hospitals turned such patients away. Ries became the one and only available medico, her affiliation with Holy Cross Hospital providing a Sisterly staff whose vows of charity made them likewise turn a blind eye to the supposed sins of clients.
Nonetheless, the dedicated AIDS ward Ries founded was so desperately understaffed that it funded sending a bright younger nurse, Maggie Snyder, back to school for training as a physician assistant. The two women wound up lifelong personal partners as well as professional ones, though they’re still both so discrete the phrase “out and proud” hardly applies.
The closet is a big element to this story, as Utah AIDS sufferers were not infrequently married men who’d denied (not entirely successfully) their sexual nature for years — in some cases unknowingly transmitting HIV to their wives. One example is late Air Force pilot Steve Smith and surviving activist spouse Kim, whose simpatico union (absent the “fireworks stuff”) is poignantly limned in home-movie excerpts. Other “Heroes” protagonists include Ballet West principal dancer Peter Christie, and Beverly Stoddard, whose mother Cindy successfully sued the state of Utah over one of its draconian laws intending to prevent AIDS by punishing sufferers.
“Heroes” shares some common ground with co-directors David Weissman and Bill Weber’s exceptional 2011 “We Were Here,” in that it focuses less on the politics and devastation of AIDS than on the community of caregivers that sprang forth in response. Duly noted in that film is the fact that so many women, and particularly lesbians, were key to that response, even though prior relations between gay males and females had often run a gamut between indifference and antagonism.
That issue goes unaddressed here, nor does the one of just what kind of “gay community” Salt Lake City did or didn’t have at all at the time. We hear a lot about closeted men and the ostracizing they suffered once ill, but nothing about whether some patients already existed in a supportive gay social context, however low-profile — presumably the case with Christie. In addition, there’s scant acknowledgement of hemophiliacs or IV drug users as significant victims in the epidemic.
“Quiet Heroes” certainly doesn’t need to be all-encompassing, but those gaps do stick out in a movie whose short runtime sometimes threatens to become too much a dual talking-heads showcase for the admirable Ries and Snyder. Offering textural diversity are neat brief animated sequences illustrating manifestations of Mormon doctrine, as well as vintage video clips showing both TV news coverage and the hard-line anti-gay proselytizing of leaders of the Mormon church at the time.
Even if a longer, more comprehensive documentary can be glimpsed here, the three directors’ choices are defensible; they’ve winnowed a big story mostly down to its most inspirational single part. “Quiet Heroes” is duly inspirational, just like its central figures.