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A Gift You Don’t Want to Receive

Sue Olswang

One of the reasons worldwide HIV/AIDS statistics are not decreasing is “because there are no messages being sent out that people are dying”.
“Show the side effect of the drug cocktails, show people who are very ill, and show people who are emaciated and dying,” says American documentary film-maker Louise Hogarth.

“Show people that prevention, through safe sex, is the only answer. If you show people suffering and dying, it is a far more effective prevention message than a picture of someone who looks healthy. There is a desperate, urgent need for renewed and effective prevention efforts.”

Hogarth’s documentary The Gift is currently being screened at the ninth annual Out in Africa Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, at Cinema Nouveau on the Waterfront.

The one-hour film is powerful, shocking and unforgettable. Its message is honest without apology, and Hogarth tackles issues without judgement.

The Gift documents the dangerous new phenomenon of deliberate HIV infection. Twenty years after the initial panic, there is now a lethal complacency fuelled by the mistaken belief that HIV/AIDS is manageable. Hogarth’s film introduces the viewer to Gift-Givers, Bugchasers, and Barebacking.

A Gift Giver we learn is “HIV-positive man who gives “the Gift” of HIV infection”.
A Bug Chaser is “an HIV-negative man who deliberately becomes infected with HIV.”
Barebacking is sex without a condom and is “deliberate high-risk sex with disregard for HIV.”

Funded out of her own pocket, the film cost Hogarth $125,000.00 to make and took two years.
“My initial budget was $380,000.00, “ said Hogarth, “but I had no funding, except for a small grant and donation of office space from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Los Angeles. I have post-production experience and was able to reduce costs by doing a lot of the stuff myself.
“When I was looking for funding, I contacted many AIDS organizations, but they did not return my calls. People don’t want to admit that prevention programmes have failed.

“There’s an attitude of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ Mos t of the world is denying HIV/AIDS. It is like a giant amnesia. High profile people are dying, and their families and everyone around them cover up and pretend they died of something else.”

When I ask Hogarth – a lesbian born in Alaska and now living in L.A., but due to move to South Africa soon – why she make the move, she said: “I’ve always tried to make films that make a difference.

“I’ve lost too many friends to the disease, and I hope the film will make a difference.”
The Gift was one of 12 documentaries accepted for the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year. It premiered at this festival, and is due to be screened at gay and lesbian – and other – film festivals all over the globe.

Hogarth’s film follows the stories of men who have sexual Russain roulette. She speaks to those who have deliberately become infected with HIV, and those who have knowingly passed on the virus. She speaks to men who’ve been involved in bareback “conversion” parties, and to men who’ve organized group orgies with no regard for safe sex practices.
When she was researching the film, Hogarth found that many bug chasers and gift givers hook up with one another through the Internet, but she pointed out that the Net cannot be blamed for the phenomenon of lethal sex.

The documentary introduces the viewer to men who have deliberately contracted the virus for different reasons. Some believe it is better to get it knowingly instead of constantly living in fear of becoming HIV-positive. Some choose a death sentence because they’ve lost friends and lovers and do not want to live without their loved ones. Some choose a positive status because “everyone has it, and I didn’t want to feel left out”. Whatever the reason, it is hard to get your head around anyone deliberately infecting their body with a virus as lethal as nuclear weapon.

Hogarth’s documentary should be seen by as many people as possible as it highlights the need for effective prevention if the world hopes to beat HIV/AIDS. This writer hopes the film grabs the attention of TV channels in order to reach a wider audience.

Hogarth co-produced The Panama Deception, which won a 1993 Academy Award for Best Feature Length Documentary. She was also director, producer and writer of Ollie Mae Johnson’s Petition for Clemency, which won the Wiley P Manuel Award. Her credits also include feature films and projects for Universal, Paramount and Disney studios.