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Classic AIDS movies through new eyes: Zero Patience (1993)

Wednesday, 15 July 2015 Categories // Activism, Movies, Arts and Entertainment, Opinion Pieces, Revolving Door, Guest Authors

We asked newly diagnosed Peterborough, Ontario man Robert W. Olver to review some of the movies which reflect our history. In the first of a series, he looks at Zero Patience, a remarkable made-in-Canada AIDS musical from 1993

Classic AIDS movies through new eyes: Zero Patience (1993)

My friend Bob recommended this movie to me the other day.

“It’s called Zero Patience, he told me. “It’s a musical comedy about HIV/AIDS.  It debunks the Patient Zero myth and it’s got lots of funny bits. See what you think.”

A musical comedy about Patient Zero? How could they even pull that off? I approached with a few misgivings (love music, don’t much care for musicals) but Bob’s description had my curiosity piqued and besides, he’s got pretty good taste, has Bob, so I duly got hold of a copy and watched it last night. And it’s a winner, I’m happy to report. Thanks Bob!

Written and directed by John Greyson and released in 1993, Zero Patience is all I was told and lots more. Greyson and the rest of the production team described their reasons for making the film this way:

“We wanted to explode the myth of Patient Zero… more importantly, we wanted to celebrate the courage and sass of an international AIDS activist movement that has tirelessly fought for the rights of people living with AIDS.”

It is indeed a musical comedy about HIV/AIDS in the early days of the outbreak with all their hysteria and with various interested parties trying very hard to control the HIV media narrative in an ongoing quest for someone to scapegoat. Patient Zero, a French-Canadian flight attendant, was accused of being the individual who brought the virus to North America.

Patient Zero was who they found to blame.

Amazingly, though the movie deals with such potentially depressing subject matter and has its share of poignant and acerbic moments, it really does have a lot of humour and is witty enough to never sink into despondency or unmitigated rage. Quite the opposite in fact.

You’ll be treated to bathhouse musical merriment aplenty and thrill to the romance of that paragon of the Victorian Spirit of Scientific Enquiry, Sir Richard Francis Burton with the disembodied ghost of Patient Zero (who is never identified by name in the film).

"It celebrates their sexuality, their bravery and determination, the very things they were demonized for and it made me want to find more of that bravery and determination in my own life, made me feel good about it all, made me want to do better." 

You’ll even be regaled (and possibly beguiled) by a pair of talking, singing assholes. You might think you know too many of those already but hold up, these ones are actually fun.

Predictably, the movie opened to mixed reviews. The music, though a lot stronger than I expected, might not be for everyone. Some thought it would have been better if the characters with AIDS had looked sicker and been easier to pity (and thus condescend to) but they aren’t and that’s the point. 

For me, the most important thing about this movie is the way it made me feel while it was running  - and afterwards. This is a film about people having run out of patience with a system that demonized and stigmatized them, even as it professed to help and about their finding the spine to stand up to that system.

It debunks the Patient Zero myth and denounces the epidemic of blame that ensued once a suitable scapegoat had been found. It celebrates their sexuality, their bravery and determination, the very things they were demonized for and it made me want to find more of that bravery and determination in my own life, made me feel good about it all, made me want to do better.

The struggle for control of the HIV/AIDS narrative goes on still, nowhere more evident than in the criminalization of people living with HIV. Somehow the science doesn’t seem to be making it into the courtrooms of this great land and it’s leading to miscarriages of justice.

So it’s important to want to do better.

I encounter so few things that inspire me this way. From where I sit, that’s a home run so I hope everyone will see this movie any way they can. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

NexL: Philadelphia

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