Culture Trips

Aids on screen: the forgotten stories of the other pandemic

When it comes to documentary insights, meanwhile, Dylan Mohan Gray’s scorching 2013 film Fire in the Blood casts light on the villainy of pharmaceutical companies, who have historically outpriced impoverished states and individuals from accessing life-saving antiretroviral (ARV) drugs. The film emphasises how millions continue to die throughout the developing world despite the existence of ARVs which, in the West, mostly render HIV an inconvenience. Conversely, Lance Bang’s 2010 documentary short The Lazarus Effect captures the lifesaving potential of ARVs within a small community in Zambia, made available to the population by the tireless work of medical professionals and activists. The victims’ skeletal bodies are revitalised in mere weeks. It’s a celebration of community and selflessness as much as it is human ingenuity.

We so often look into the past with queer fiction, in part because queer desires, fantasies and romances have been historically forced into the shadows by prejudice, making them a great source of dramatic suspense. Perhaps it can feel like we’re rummaging through our attics, lifting tragedies from boxes and bins. This is especially true of Aids fiction, which is often like picking away at the edges of a healing scab. Yet there is still so much to say about the crisis that remains vital, and for all that the canon may be cherished, new stories need to be told from all corners of the Earth.

For even in the current moment, when our planet is engulfed by another plague, our memories are short. “Here’s the lesson now, in the midst of another virus,” Davies says. “You sit listening to [news] phone-ins, and people of my age are sitting there going: this is the second [major epidemic in the UK in recent years], it’s the second! Yet [the first] is barely referenced.” There are 33 years between Russell and me, but I feel the same frustration – the broader amnesia towards Aids in the present echoes the ambivalence of the past. It can feel, sometimes, like it never happened.

Thirty-three million people have died of Aids across the globe, and they continue to do so, yet the dominant point of comparison for coronavirus has consistently been the 1918 flu pandemic, from more than a century ago. Why isn’t Aids being cross-referenced as much as it should be? “It’s the same problem all over again: the shame and fear around talking about sex and the nature of transmission. That’s what killed so many people in the 80s, and here it is still now, still prevalent,” says Davies. He pauses briefly, a crack in his jolly cadence. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

It’s a Sin is currently showing on Channel 4 and All4 in the UK and will air on HBO Max in the US later in 2021.

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