In October 2017, Shaun Dunne’s play, Rapids, made its debut at the Dublin Theatre Festival. His portrait of the lives of HIV+ men and women in Ireland then took its depiction of stigma, disclosure and social attitudes on tour around the country and now this year’s BFI Flare screens a cinematic version. But How To Tell A Secret no straightforward transfer from stage to screen. Instead the original stage production is the inspiration and springboard to a documentary/theatrical hybrid which extends the scope of the original and brings the experiences of its subjects into the 2020s.
The opening points us in the direction of the theatre – the empty stage and seats and a soliloquy straight to camera. And it’s a set-up that recurs regularly in the film, but it doesn’t take long for the number of people on screen to multiply and for the scope of their stories and experiences to venture outside that one room to multiple locations. We hear the stories of a number of different HIV+ people: some of them we actually meet, others we only hear because they have decided we won’t see their faces. And even more make their presence felt through their words, read by actors. The fact that so many of the contributors feel the need to conceal their identity even now speaks for itself. As one woman explains, she’s protecting her children rather than herself. They’re always listening, so she never knows exactly what they hear and what they don’t but she is all too aware, to use her own words, that “sometimes your story isn’t your own.”
One of the most striking aspects of the film is how it works as a wake-up call. Advances in HIV treatment and a certain more recent pandemic means that the subject has all-but disappeared from our minds. Conversations in the film reveal that the prevailing attitude is that the virus has disappeared yet, as we discover later, Ireland has one of the fastest growing rates of infection in Europe. And disclosing an HIV+ diagnosis to somebody else is fraught with fear – of rejection/the prospect of what was once secret becoming public/of being stigmatized/all of those and more. It is, as we’re told at the start, “This is the worst thing you could ever hear from an ex.”
It’s also an eye-opener on a different level. Since it was first identified, HIV has always been associated mainly with men – current UK figures show that around 75% of new diagnoses are given to males – but the film goes out of its way to shine a light on the female experience, presenting a wholly different viewpoint, but one that’s just as powerful and thought-provoking, if not even more so. Although Dunne, who also wrote the screenplay as well as directing, has kept the film’s roots in Ireland and spotlights the country’s social attitudes as one of the reasons for the pain that goes with both secrecy and disclosure, all the experiences we hear about and learn from are universal and that’s one of the film’s great strengths. The other is its honest, direct approach, forging a strong connection with an audience that feels increasingly involved in the lives portrayed on screen. It’s an experience that etches itself indelibly on the memory.
Documentary | Screened at BFI Flare on 24, 25 and 26 March 2023 | Certificate: tbc | Dir: Shaun Dunne, Anna Rodgers | Shaun Dunne, Eva-Jane Gaffney, Jade Jordan, Lauren Larkin, Robbie Lawlor, Lady Veda.