When the most common narrative is that living with an illness is a tragedy, we stop seeing the people going through this as people. We look at them with pity, creating one-dimensional portraits of them. Media portrayals often miss out on presenting the complexity and multilayered aspects of living with a chronic condition. Perhaps we're so scared of finding ourselves in that situation that we separate ourselves through this dehumanization. We feel bad but we don't want to feel too much.
HIV patients have been stigmatized and misjudged since the first cases of the illness began to show up on the radar of developed nations. Since then, their stories have seldom have been told with justice and dignity. Yet, there are several films that present the deeper, more complex, side of what it means to live with this illness. These are some of the best examples.
Parting Glances (1986), Bill Sherwood
Who isn’t up to watching a wacky film that shows the visceral reality of New York City's gay scene in the eighties? Starring none other than the cult eye-popping actor Steve Buscemi, this movie focuses on the AIDS crisis during the Reagan era, it’s a hilarious film that will take you on a rollercoaster of tears and laughter. The vibrance and realism of the movie isn’t only a product of its craft. In a sense, this is a sort of docudrama. Director Bill Sherwood lived with HIV, and he had to face the experiences of his movie’s characters in his own flesh. Sadly, he died before completing any other film. Such a heartbreaking loss.
The Hours (2002), Stephen Daldry
Who could ever guess that a story about Virginia Woolf’s writing could provide a stunning insight of life with HIV? The Hours deals with the lives of three women from different generations across the twentieth century, entwined by Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway. One of these characters, played by the tough Ed Harris, is a lauded poet and author struck by AIDS. His heartbreaking story expresses the crippling power of the disease and how it may alter even the strongest spirits. This is a superb film about enduring the overwhelming forces of life and facing our obstacles with dignity.
Zero Patience (1993), John Greyson
Although this bizarre film doesn’t present a real-life experience, it’s a dazzling metaphor of what it's like to live with the disease and the constant state of anguish that it causes. The movie’s offbeat plot revolves around a rather bizarre couple of characters. One is based on Gaëtan Dugas, a flight attendant who, according to rumors, spread the virus through his promiscuous sexuality. The other is a legendary Victorian scholar that somehow managed to live up to 170 years of age. This strange story is all told through a compelling musical. A weird but charming treat of a film, it has become a must to understand the principles of queer theory.
The Cure (1995), Peter Horton
We’re pretty much used to watching HIV movies that look like an after-school special. They present cardboard characters and boring dialogue that disconnects us from the realities of people going through this. Those cheap flicks often make us forget that, there are different ages and situations regarding people infected with this virus. Pediatric patients are not usually who we think of when we consider HIV. The Cure tells a story that focuses on a young character. This teen-flick tells the story of three children that decide to look for the cure of this absorbing disease to save the life of one of them who got infected through an unhealthy blood transfusion. It’s a tale about friendship, coming of age, and learning to deal with the almost unsurpassable obstacles that life places on our road to happiness.
Dallas Buyers Club ( 2013), Jean-Marc Valleé
What would happen if a macho cowboy was suddenly struck with a disease he believes to only affect homosexuals? This is the story of a character who not only has to face sickness, but also his own prejudices. Through a dazzling performance from Matthew McConaughey, this film shows how sickness not necessarily affects people in a negative way, but it can rather propel a change that can favor society as a whole.