To coincide with the home entertainment releases of Dylan Mohan Gray’s Fire in the Blood and David France’s How to Survive a Plague this month, FLUX will feature a two part interview special with the filmmakers to discuss tackling AIDS onscreen.
The last twelve months or so has been a busy spell for the subject of AIDS in both documentary and narrative filmmaking. Last year saw the release of two documentaries – Fire in the Blood and How to Survive a Plague, followed earlier this year by Dallas Buyers Club.
Fire in the Blood centers on the African AIDS crisis, and is a film of firsts for its filmmaker who makes his feature documentary debut as writer, director, producer and editor.
Following the critical praise Fire in the Blood received upon its theatrical release in 2013, FLUX was fortunate to have an opportunity to put the documentary filmmaker in the interview chair where he discussed entering the documentary world, the relevance of the story of AIDS today, disease as a metaphor, and the insightful and sometimes unflattering discussion AIDS can provoke.
What was the genesis for Fire in the Blood and your decision to write, direct, produce and edit the documentary?
Like many film projects, it all began with an article I read back in 2004 about the fight to get low-cost antiretrovirals into Africa at the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. I started reading more about it, and had the opportunity to meet some of the key people in the story. It quickly became something of a personal obsession, and at some point friends started asking why I wasn’t thinking of doing a film about it. I had been working in the film industry for a long time but wasn’t part of the documentary world. This story was incredibly powerful, had not been told in any comprehensive way, and was clearly in the early stages of being lost, and so I finally decided to dive in.
From Dallas Buyers Club to Fire in the Blood, both take a different approach to exploring the subject of AIDS on screen. How relevant is the story of AIDS today?
For me this film has never been primarily about AIDS. At its core it’s about how we treat each other as human beings, and how committed, passionate people can solve intractable problems with great ingenuity. Also it is about the extent to which corporations have almost completely taken over policymaking, and the degree to which we live in an age where the idea of a “public interest” has been comprehensively abandoned. AIDS serves as a conduit into a story about the notion of basic human rights to health and access to medicine, and in terms of the threats such rights are currently facing, the story is probably more urgent right now than it ever has been at any point in history.
Film is a journey for audience and filmmaker alike. How has the project impacted your view of the story of AIDS within the international community, and what has it opened your eyes to that you may previously have been unaware of?
As I’ve been bringing this film out in various parts of the world over the past year and a half I have had the chance to speak with a lot of fellow documentary filmmakers – long form investigative journalists, academics and activists working on similar subjects. Almost all of them concur that unfortunately the more you dig and the more you discover the worse it invariably all is. The capacity of elites and society at large to disregard and mistreat their or our fellow human beings with utmost brutality, callousness and near-total indifference can be truly mind-boggling. Often audiences understandably find it very hard to accept, just as they often find it hard to accept what a comprehensive scam the whole system of for-profit medicine really is; even when presented with the cold, hard facts. On the positive side, I’ve met a great many committed, even heroic people who have done incredible things and have taken upon themselves immense burdens to turn horrible situations around. A number of these contributions are pointedly depicted in Fire in the Blood.
In both fiction and documentary films AIDS has been layered with metaphor. It is an indictment against human nature – our xenophobia and the willingness to cast others to the fringes of society. It also targets the failure of health care systems and government, as well as the corruption of society by capitalism.
HIV/AIDS continues to carry a lot of stigma; there’s no doubt about that. Many people still find it very difficult to truly sympathise or empathise with HIV-positive people, and it seems to matter little when it’s pointed out how many among them had no “culpability” in acquiring the virus. The spread of mass antiretroviral therapy and the tremendous success of the medicine in allowing people to live full, active and healthy lives has gone a long way to ‘normalising’ HIV in the eyes of the wider world. But there is still a long way to go before it is liberated from an abiding whiff of shame in the public imagination.
A discussion present within the Fire in the Blood film is the difficulty to reconcile capitalism with welfare. Do you think as a society we have learned from the AIDS crisis for the future?
The answer to that question is no. Elements of capitalism can at times work reasonably well in expanding access to medicine, in particular in engendering competition among multiple producers. Research and development focused on public health needs however cannot be left to the whims of pharmaceutical companies, because only rarely will their commercial aims be in alignment with our public priorities.
There seems to be a lack of governmental responsibility, where they have lost control of those operating within their sphere of influence.
I would say that is being far too charitable to governments. Money and corruption have progressively pushed policymakers into doing the bidding of giant corporations at a truly horrendous cost to the public interest. Without government regulatory structures, none of this can happen. Governments have increasingly operated in direct contravention of their mandates to protect and advance the cause of public welfare.
The word “fire” in the title is particularly fitting. It speaks of the AIDS virus, but also of all the other various factors that compound the suffering which actually derives from us.
As you say, “fire” has multiple connotations, and they will of course differ from person to person. It is on the one hand evocative of pain and torment, but it is also a fierce drive and determination, passion, and for some even hope itself.
In a time when we are being told to question our sources of information, what is the importance of the documentary in the present and beyond?
We all need to do a lot more questioning, and rely a lot less on the idea that “opinion leaders” and institutions will be honest and truthful with us. Investigative journalism is increasingly rare, and what there is, is often frustratingly unserious and superficial. Documentaries are becoming more and more essential as people hunger for thoughtful deconstruction of major social questions, which are generally left unaddressed by the news media.
Why does the documentary endure?
I think one could answer that question both cynically and optimistically. In terms of Fire in the Blood, it was really the best format for telling this particular story. I worry that many people in the industry increasingly feel that docs need to have some sort of gimmicky device to “work”, and that strong content and ideas are too “conventional” to make a splash… I really don’t believe audiences feel that way. However and in fact I sense they are often frustrated by all the bells and whistles filmmakers feel compelled to pimp their films out with these days in order to generate notice. There needs to be room for all kinds of approaches, but it can be disheartening to see certain films being excessively lauded for “audacity” or for their formal similarity to scripted films, when far too often these devices are used to cover up narratives which are really underwhelming in terms of execution, substance and intellectual rigor.
Looking ahead, what’s next for you?
I have some projects I’m looking at and which I’m trying to develop. In our industry it is very much dependent on getting people with money to buy into what you’re trying to do, and so which of these will be the next to get off the ground is a bit hard to say at the moment. I’d love to shoot something a bit smaller and more intimate than Fire in the Blood in the short term, because I worked so long on this project and it was so complex that I do feel a need to rediscover a little bit of simplicity and reflectiveness in my work.
Interview with Dylan Mohan Gray by Paul Risker
Available on DVD from 24 March 2014
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How to Survive a Plague is available on DVD from 31 March 2014