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New York Times

Forsaking Health to Join the H.I.V. Club

Doug Hitzel in Louise Hogarth’s documentary, “The Gift,” part of NewFest 2003: The New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Far and away the most important selection in NewFest 2003: The New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, celebrating its 15th anniversary, is Louise Hogarth’s alarming documentary, “The Gift.” This film, to be screened at the New York University Cantor Film Center tomorrow evening, examines the increasing ineffectiveness of safer-sex education in urban gay culture and the resulting rise in H.I.V.-infection rates among younger men.

The title refers to a small, Internet-fed subculture that romanticizes H.I.V. infection in ritualized initiations known as conversion parties, at which the virus, known as “the gift,” is passed to so-called bug-chasers.

A subject that could easily have been sensationalized is treated evenhandedly in a film that suggests that in an effort not to offend those who are H.I.V.-positive, AIDS educators have sent out messages that are too vague and timid to register. The misleading ads for drugs that have kept AIDS patients alive show robust, sexy musclemen who seem carefree and asymptomatic.

Several men who give and attend large, organized sex parties testify that revealing your H.I.V. status has become an unspoken taboo at such affairs, and that the use of condoms is now optional and in some cases even discouraged.
Two young men who deliberately became infected are also interviewed. One is tearfully regretful about his decision, the other relieved because he figures that he has a few more years of good health and freedom from worry before he becomes ill. For the first man, an insecure outsider longing for acceptance, the allure of infection was a feeling of belonging to a club. For the second it was the more nihilistic decision to live for the moment.
Reflecting on the shift in attitude is a support group of older AIDS patients, all suffering life-threatening cardiovascular side effects from the medications that are keeping them alive. The tone of their conversation mixes sadness with anger at the degree to which many urban gay men have blinded themselves to an unpleasant truth. The young men seeking “the gift’ simply don’t know what awaits them.
Linda Goode Bryant’s documentary “Flag Wars,” showing tonight at the Cantor Film Center, takes a hardheaded look at urban gentrification and what happens when a working-class (largely African-American) neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, becomes a mecca for middle-class lesbian and gay homeowners. As the city declares the neighborhood a historic district, stringent new restrictions force many residents to abandon the neighborhood in which they grew up.

This year’s festival is more internationalist than ever. Last night’s festival-opening film, “Mambo Italiano,” has been described as a gay Italian-American “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” The closing-night film (on June 15), “Merci Dr. Rey,” is a French farce starring Dianne Wiest as an American opera diva who returns to Paris, where her gay son lives.
The protagonist of the Sri Lankan comedy “Flying With One Wing” is a mechanic (married to a woman) who has successfully passed as a man until a doctor, treating an injury, discovers her secret.

“Gasoline” suggests an Italian lesbian “Thelma and Louise.” “Yossi and Jagger” is the love story of two Israeli soldiers. “Kiki and Tiger,” set in Germany on the eve of the war in Kosovo, explores the interplay of sex and politics in the friendship of a gay Serb who falls in love with a straight illegal immigrant from Albania.
Whether the setting is Sri Lanka or Israel or Germany, the gay and lesbian characters face variations of the same social pressures, stereotyping and potential violence that they do in the United States.

NewFest 2003: The New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival runs through June 15 at two Greenwich Village locations: the New York University Cantor Film Center, 36 East Eighth Street, and the New School University’s Tishman Auditorium, 66 West 12th Street.