South African Film Update
Louise Hogarth and The Gift
The Gift is the latest offering from Louise Hogarth, Academy Award-winning producer of The Panama Deception (1993), and one of films currently being screened as part of the Out in Africa Festival. Controversial even before its release, the film investigates the phenomenon of Bug Chasing, where HIV-negative men deliberately seek to become infected with the HIV virus. There are a number of reasons for this which Louise explores in her film, as she examines the role of “gift givers” (HIV-positive men who infect others) and “Bug Chasers” (HIV-negative men looking to contract the virus).
According to The Gift, Bug Chasers look to contract HIV for a number of reasons. Some have or have lost HIV-positive partners, and their sense of survivor guilt may be coupled with their longing to join their partners. Others say they will feel relieved once they test positive because they won’t have to worry about the disease anymore – and they’ll be able to enjoy unprotected sex. Rolling Stone Magazine’s controversial article on Bug Chasers featured a man who finds it highly erotic that someone could be infecting him, and he looks forward to becoming the “gift giver” because he is turned on by the thought of “slowly killing” someone else. (It is important to note, however, that the magazine has retracted this controversial article after it was discovered that various “facts” had been falsified, and a number of doctors interviewed claimed to have been misquoted.)
I meet up with Louise Hogarth in a leafy garden setting, quite an incongruous place to discuss the hard-hitting and disturbing subject of her film. What leaves a lasting impression and indeed catches me somewhat off guard is Louise’s interest and willingness to find out what I think. She wants to hear my feelings on her film, on safe sex, on the general community’s unwillingness to discuss HIV with friends. I found this disarming and pleasantly surprising, because as a passionate and outspoken filmmaker I know she has a lot to say. And as a woman with so strong an agenda Louise comes across in a rather soft-spoken manner, but when she talks on her subject she is full of conviction.
“I never thought I’d make a documentary about this,” Louise begins, explaining how she had never worked on this topic before or conducted much intensive research on the subject. And intensive is certainly an apt way to describe the life cycle of The Gift – two and a half years in the making from conception of the idea to its impending release.
“I have a lot of friends who died of HIV,” Louise says of her impetus to make the film, “When I heard about barebacking I was appalled. So I did some research on the Internet.” And right from the start, she explains, it was Louise’s intention for her film to make an impact. “I was motivated by trying to make a difference,” she says, “I really thought the gay community would get behind me and I was surprised that they really did not.” Most people did not support Louise at all she explains, for a variety of reasons associated with their own sense of fear and insecurity towards attaching themselves to her project. “Big AIDS organisations in America didn’t even return my phonecalls,” she remembers, and adds that a number of high profile AIDS prevention organisations would not co-operate because, as Louise sees it, it would be tantamount to an admission that they had failed in their own endeavours.
February of this year saw Bug Chasing explode into mainstream media as a result of a “Special Report” in Rolling Stone Magazine. Gregory A. Freeman’s Bug Chasers – The Men Who Long to be HIV + caused a firestorm in both the media and greater society. While Louise had already been working on her film for some time, the article was published while she was still in the final stages of post-production. “The Rolling Stone article came out first and the gay community absolutely attacked them,” she recalls. Many people had warned Louise from the start not to venture into this territory, and while she pressed on with her project she took their warnings seriously. “It scared the shit out of me,” she says, “I didn’t want to be attacked by the gay community.”
Because so many organisations were hesitant (or downright afraid) when it came to Louise’s project, she had difficulty in finding means of financial support. “I funded it myself,” she explains, “I think it’s such an important subject.” It was Louise’s commitment to spreading a message that pushed her to pursue her project with her own resources. But it was also, it seems, her own sense of need to understand a phenomenon so “appalling” to her when she learned of its existence. “I wanted to know why people do it,” Louise says of her research process.
And two and a half years down the line, has she come to any conclusions? “Survivor guilt, grief, thinking the drugs will work,” she lists her findings, but is quick to throw in a statistic that puts things in perspective. “In America 60% of new infections are gay men,” she says, drawing attention to the alarming infection rate among gay men.
I tell Louise how moved (and surprised) I was to see her subjects opening up and sharing with such sincerity and rawness their experiences of a highly sensitive subject. In particular I mention Doug, the young guy who is brutally honest about his quest to contract HIV and his regrets ever since. Doug also appeared as an interviewee in the controversial Rolling Stone piece, and Louise speaks with admiration about his willingness to tell his story. “Doug was very happy to share,” she says, and goes on to explain the severity of his condition, “There are three [drug] cocktails available. One of them he’s already immune to, another he is almost immune to. And he’s just turned twenty-one.”
The process of meeting and interviewing Doug has evidently left a profound impression on Louise. “It was very hard,” she explains, “He gave me pneumonia.” And apart from her physical symptoms, she felt the emotional strain. “It was just so sad. The whole thing’s been very sad to do. He’s a bright kid and bright kids take chances.”
Her memory of Doug leads Louise onto more general themes, beginning with certain attitudes she has picked up within the gay community. “In the gay male community everyone you meet is a potential sex partner,” Louise states, and links this to the trend against discussing AIDS. “You want to appear as attractive as you can. You don’t want to talk about the drugs and the diarrhea.” She reiterates the sentiment of one of her interview subjects, who candidly states that when you go to a party, no one wants to talk about medication.
“It’s a great big don’t ask, don’t tell,” she continues, “Don’t say the A word. People don’t test that much anymore. They don’t want the bad news. It’s every man for himself.”
Because Louise received no budgetary support, she needed to find people committed enough to work on the project for little or no pay. “A lot of people gave of their time,” she says gratefully, “They wanted to work on something they thought people would see. They thought it was an important subject.” But it was Louise who was the driving force behind this project, from her initial Internet research to her trips between Los Angeles and San Francisco to meet with subjects such as Doug. When it came to post-production Louise was once more integral to the process, and her advice to others is that organisation is the key. “I’ve worked a lot in post production,” she says, “That’s where if you don’t know what you’re doing you get buried. It can cost you months of time. I’m extremely organised. Everything was done with numbers. You have to be able to track everything that’s going on.”
Keeping track of who said what is crucial when, like Louise, you have over eighty hours of footage to work with. And while logging and organising material was a challenge, narrowing down the footage to an hour was a difficulty in itself. “It was really hard,” says Louise, “You have diverse people telling a story that has no beginning, middle or end.” Instead of following one subject as in much traditional documentary, she explains, Louise has brought in various sources and included them within one film. “This is a new idea,” she says, “Where you take one idea and bring in diverse elements.”
“It was so hard to tell this story,” Louise confesses, and adds that part of the difficulty is knowing what to leave out. “You don’t want to get rid of it because you’re in love with everything.” At this point I tell Louise that what I possibly admire most about her film is the exclusion of explicit images and material designed to shock and sensationalise. The Gift is all the more powerful because graphic material is conspicuously absent, leaving the film to the gripping testimony of the people personally affected. “I could have,” she says of the inclusion of explicit material, “I made a conscious decision to cut that out.” The scenes detailing parties in the so-called “dungeon” are specifically free of graphic images, where it would have been so easy (and expected) to include them. For Louise there was a distinct reason behind this decision. “I didn’t want to glamourise the dungeon,” she explains.
“I thought it was a film where I could influence policy,” says Louise, emphasising the fundamental intentions of her film, “The gay community cannot continue to ignore what happens. I try not to do blame and shame. I just want them to see the light.” I note that the film has a clear political agenda, and Louise agrees before clarifying this statement. “There’s more of a human agenda than a political agenda,” she says, “To get people to talk about HIV.” The film is to be screened at the United Nations in New York as part of the International Film and Television Conference. Policy makers will be attending the event and Louise is proud to be attending the “invitation only” symposium and screening her film for powerful political figures.
The film hasn’t been released in the US yet, but already Louise has received a string of invitations to visit film festivals around the world. “The reaction has been very good,” she says, remembering, “I was warned all the time I would be in trouble. The film ignites discussion.”
“I’m very excited,” she continues, “Because what I wanted to do was get people talking about HIV. In Berlin and LA a lot of men said they felt pressure from HIV positive men to become positive.” She explains that HIV-negative men tell her that they’ve been exposed to a “get positive, get it over with” attitude from HIV-positive men. As significant as this fact, if not more so, is that Louise’s film is inspiring these men to come forward and share such experiences – where they otherwise may not have talked about them at all.
As we leave our sunny spot I ask Louise whether she’s overwhelmed by the attention and debate that have surrounded this film. “I didn’t expect this,” she responds with a smile, “I’m happy. Hopefully I will save lives.”