Essential Opinion: Killing Patient Zero

We all are aware of the phrase “Patient Zero”, but the man who would be identified under this damning codename has become increasingly forgotten over time. Named in journalist Randy Shilts’ influential non fiction tome And the Band Played On, which finally brought the AIDS conversation into the mainstream several years after its first reported outbreak, a French-Canadian flight attendant named Gaetan Dugas was widely believed to be the first person who brought the disease to the USA and around the world. He died three years before the book’s publication, and so didn’t survive to see how his place as a footnote in the wider story of the epidemic was twisted so he became something of a manipulative villain; friends of Gaetan expressed bemusement at his depiction as a man who deliberately spread the disease.

Killing Patient Zero

Shilts, who died of AIDS related complications himself in 1994, was accused by many of internalised homophobia due to these negative (and seemingly sensationalised) portrayals within his work. Dugas may look irresponsible in retrospect, refusing to take medical advice and continuing with his sex life as normal until he had concrete proof as to how the virus was spread, but he was merely foolish on a catastrophic level, as opposed to being an evil man with intent to harm others. Eventually, it was revealed he was one of many people with the virus and not the originator, but this was years later – the damage had been done, and the myth of patient zero has left a lasting impact while the truth of the man has been forgotten.

After a successful career in Canadian television, where he most recently directed several episodes of Schitt’s Creek, director Laurie Lynd has decided to tackle another groundbreaking non-fiction book that grapples with the AIDS crisis: Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic, by Richard McKay. The film doesn’t shy away from criticising Dugas for his actions, but the film is dedicated to his memory – putting his reckless behaviour in the context of the gay liberation movement, and perfectly articulating why so many gay men refused to give up one of the few joys they had in a culture hostile to their existence.

Lynd has conducted more than 40 interviews for this documentary, many of whom were subjects in Shilts’ original book, in order to find truth behind the harmful myths. The media’s depiction of the “gay cancer” at the time was seemingly designed to reinforce harmful stereotypes of gay men and their sex lives, with conservative governments across the world refusing to even acknowledge the crisis due to a hatred of gay people. As many interviewers attest, if this were disproportionately affecting straight men, there would have been an urgency to find a cure a lot sooner. An interview with Shilts’ original publisher, who convinced him to divorce the minor Patient Zero story from the book and sell it to the conservative tabloid the New York Post, shows that in order to get this story into the public consciousness, the worst stereotypes had to be indulged to make headlines. A man who wanted to find the human story behind the headlines had to dumb down his own findings to get noticed, and only continued to harm the LGBT community as a result.

Much of the film’s first half is dedicated to discussing the sexual freedoms of the 70’s, following the Stonewall riots that closed the previous decade. Within this context, it makes the spread of the disease and the reluctance to step away from sex lives (where the average gay man, it is alleged by various subjects, would have slept with a thousand people) understandable if not justifiable. It puts the promiscuity considered by many people in polite society at the time to be a sinful trait under a lens that removes all judgement – after years where trips to nightclubs and bathhouses were the only joys in life away from the scorn of the wider world, you can see why there’d be a reluctance to step away from that lifestyle. Through various talking head interviews, Lynd helps younger audiences understand why this disease was able to spread so widely, without judging as to the reasons why this was able to happen.

Killing Patient Zero is a great educational documentary, that feels vital to our understanding of the AIDS crisis. It should join the book upon which it is based as key texts for people researching this period of history.

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All pictures reproduced courtesy of Fadoo

Alistair Ryder
Alistair (member of GALECA, the Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics' Association) is a 22 year old former journalism student from the sun-soaked city of Leeds, England, who has recently moved to Cambridge. He has been writing about film since the start of 2014, at Cut Print Film, editor over at Film Inquiry and is also a regular contributor to the "Bums on Seats" movie review show on Cambridge 105 FM.
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