TORONTO — Veteran Toronto director Laurie Lynd taps into the myth-busting 2017 book “Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic” for a documentary feature that reframes the legacy of Quebec flight attendant Gaetan Dugas, a promiscuous gay man who was incorrectly identified as patient zero by investigators from the U.S. Center for Disease Control in the early years of the AIDS epidemic.
“Killing Patient Zero,” which had its world premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto, explores how the idea of a patient zero was amplified – and how Dugas was vilified – via the publisher’s strategy for promoting the groundbreaking book “And The Band Played On,” by serializing and sensationalizing its patient-zero chapter.
In Lynd’s film, author Randy Shilts is a key supporting character whose crusade to effect change through his writing had complex repercussions.
In a traditional but lively style, Lynd and editor Trevor Ambrose take viewers from the halcyon days of gay liberation through the confusion, sadness, and anger of the epidemic’s early months and years, using archive and new interviews with Dugas’ friends and colleagues, epidemiological biologists, and cultural commentators to retell the story in the context of today’s media landscape. Lynd spoke with Variety about why the patient-zero story still resonates.
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“Killing Patient Zero” draws from Dr. Richard McKay’s “Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic,” and also gets into cultural and visual commentary. What was your own connection and approach to this important story?
Producer Cory Russell at Fadoo Productions saw articles about the new science around the original blood samples, which absolutely concluded that Gaetan Dugas could not have been patient zero. This led Cory to get the rights to McKay’s book, and then he approached me. It was almost like kismet. I made a short film “RSVP” because of reading “And The Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic.” From 1982 to 1986, I attended the graduate film program at NYU and lived in the heart of the epidemic. When I started this film, I was stunned to realize how much I didn’t see at the time—I had blinders on.
When “And The Band Played On” first came out I totally bought into the patient zero idea. Up here in Canada of course we had John Greyson’s 1993 musical film “Zero Patience” [which refutes the popular notion that HIV/AIDS was introduced to North America by one person]. So I welcomed the chance to rehabilitate Gaetan Dugas’ name and, in getting to know him second-hand, came to admire his courage immensely. For the time, he was so openly gay!
One of the things I brought to the film, and which is not in McKay’s book, is simply the story of being gay and growing up gay back then—looking at what society was telling gay people and the psychological impact of that, and giving a sense of the subtle everyday homophobia that was all around us in popular culture.
You interviewed around 40 people for the film. Were they also in McKay’s book or were they new voices?
Almost two-thirds of the people interviewed in the film are in McKay’s book. Our Quebec team found many of Gaetan’s friends and people he worked with—all of whom were very moved talking about him after all these years. I wanted to speak to gay people who lived through the period, such as B. Ruby Rich, a seminal voice writing about New Queer Cinema. Fran Lebowitz, who I had been reading since high school, brought so much wit and insight to such a tough, dark subject.
My approach was to organize the interviews so I could create something like a symposium. As someone who works mostly in dramatic film and TV, I find it such a privilege to interview someone on camera. And as a gay man, who turned 60 this year and who lived through this, I found I was more candid about myself, in terms of talking about internalized homophobia.
Every day we encounter reports of outbreaks of diseases somewhere or other. In the film you make a point of showing how people got, or didn’t get, the news about HIV/AIDS. Can you talk about why the portrayal of the media at that time is central to the film?
Yes, there was no Internet, of course. For younger audiences, it’s important to understand that there was no way to get news about what was happening, unless it was in gay community newspapers. Legacy media was not covering AIDS. Coverage from that time was all variations on the same theme. Homophobes were so entranced by the idea of one person spreading a disease that only gay people caught. The premier of British Columbia at the time was suggesting quarantine, he wanted to put people with AIDS on an island; the Health Minister at the time stopped funding safe sex education and programs. There was squeamishness around gay people and gay sex. The CDC did some extraordinary reporting about the disease, but even they were slow to release information about safe sex.
I think the most shocking thing I encountered during filming was that audio of that White House press conference about AIDS in 1992. It’s . . . almost unbelievable to hear the media and politicians in that room all laughing and making sarcastic jokes about “the gay plague.” I will never understand that hatred.
I remember when “And The Band Played On” came out, but had no idea the role it played in kickstarting the whole concept, even, of a patient zero. What was your take on author Randy Shilts (who died in 1994) after getting to know him through this process?
Well, I’m happy to say that, with the same producers, I’m going to make a feature doc on Randy, which we’re calling “Openly Gay Reporter.” We’re hoping to start this fall. I have a lot of material.
I feel Randy did the wrong thing for the right reasons. His name needs to be rehabilitated in the gay community. At the time of the AIDS crisis, he was in favor of closing bathhouses. In those days, any suggestion to curtail sexual activity was greeted with suspicion, and he was blamed for his position on that. So there is a lingering resentment towards him for that. But I came away with a deep admiration for how extraordinary he was, to put himself out there as a gay journalist and with three very important books, including his biography of Harvey Milk, and “Conduct Unbecoming.”
In a clip that didn’t make it into the film, Ruby Rich says that she thinks this story is more important that it’s ever been, because, with the rise of populist governments, homophobia is back on the table. It’s a scary time. And this film so clearly shows the cost to people going through those times.