Gaëtan Dugas was a handsome French-Canadian flight attendant who, like most gay men in the seventies, dove headfirst into the pleasure-as-politics ethos of the burgeoning gay liberation movement. To be promiscuous was emancipatory, and it was a golden era: Across the decade, as one of the film’s many talking heads asserts, the average gay man might’ve had sex with upwards of a thousand people.
Killing Patient Zero is an intriguing work. It constitutes archaeology, biography and polemic in equal parts, interweaving the history of the gay liberation movement up to the AIDS crisis with the personal story of Dugas, the “Patient Zero” from whom the film derives its name. Owing in part to the unwittingly false reportage of San Francisco Chronicle reporter Randy Shilts, famed for his AIDS chronicle “And The Band Played On,” Dugas was long considered to be the first case of AIDS in the United States. For it he was demonised by the right-wing press.
This has now been debunked but the myth has stuck with the wider consciousness. To vindicate his legacy thus constitutes the central M.O. of director Laurie Lynd: He paints an affectionate portrait of Dugas, who was far from the “Monster Who Gave Us AIDS” that contemporary reportage would have us believe.
Lynd makes a point not to demonise Shilts nor “And The Band Played On” for the book’s unjust portrayal of Dugas, although he does emphasise that it played a central role in perpetuating the Patient Zero myth. In many ways, as Lynd concludes, Dugas was a sacrificial lamb. Although insignificant, it was Dugas’ role in the book that the media latched onto, thus pushing it to the front pages and catalysing a nationwide conversation. Before this only Rock Hudson had brought such attention to the epidemic.
Ample background on the AIDS crisis is provided in a similar fashion to other works on the subject: How to Survive a Plague comes to mind, although the film’s humanistic, talking head methodology might remind you also of 2015’s Last Men Standing. It is consistent with these films tonally, both righteously furious and solemn. Outside of the work on Dugas’ legacy there isn’t anything truly revelatory here, but it serves as a good beginner’s package for those who don’t know much about the history of AIDS.
The film does bring interesting voices to the floor. If you’re as much of a queer film nerd as I am, you’ll share in my excitement at the appearance of iconic queer film scholar B. Ruby Rich, who imparts the most profound statement of the film midway through: “It’s very Shakespearean,” she says of the AIDS crisis, “to have this breakthrough, this incredible show of support […] and then, to just be wiped out. As if in some diabolical plan.” Again, it’s not exactly new to remark on the cosmic injustices of AIDS nor on its terrible ironies, but it’s seldom put so nicely.
The film’s most formally impressive sequence is its climax, of sorts, seamlessly blending talking head narration and archive footage. At a Vancouver AIDS conference in 1983, Dugas stepped up to the microphone and passionately defended his right to promiscuity: At this point there was no proof that AIDS was an infectious agent, so why strip away one’s humanity as a potentially useless precaution? Hindsight puts his argument to bed but his logic can’t be denied, even if it contravenes the politics of queer respectability.
The film ends with a touching eulogy for Dugas, whose legacy is at least partially corrected. But there is the feeling, somewhat, that for Killing Patient Zero to be engaging is predicated by prior interest. Much of the film is built of stats, facts and more stats; this is softened by the humanitarian angle offered by the talking heads, but your attention span might drift. Nonetheless, this is an important work of queer archaeology.
This review is from the 44th Frameline Festival. This digital screening is available to view between 12:01am Thursday, September 17 and 11:59pm Sunday, September 27. The 4:00pm Sunday, September 20 screening will be followed by a Q&A.