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When 'The Gift' is HIV

A documentary enters a realm where men seek infection. It's not a picture of AIDS that lands quietly.

January 11, 2004|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

In Louise Hogarth's new documentary, "The Gift," a soft-spoken, Midwestern college youth named Doug Hitzel tearfully recalls what drove him to become a "bug chaser" -- an HIV-negative man who seeks to be infected with the virus that causes AIDS. Later, Hogarth visits a home where dozens of men are attending a "barebacking" party for unprotected sex. Interspersed through the movie are interviews with HIV-positive men who believe that prolonged use of anti-AIDS drug "cocktails" has caused them to suffer serious health problems, including heart disease.

These, Hogarth believes, are the hard realities of AIDS in America.

Her film derives its title from the term "gift givers," or HIV-positive men who give "the gift" of HIV infection, and since its debut at the Berlin Film Festival last February, audiences have viewed "The Gift" with a mixture of horror and fascination. Some have compared it to watching an accident. Others have given it a standing ovation. The movie raises questions such as: Why do so many gay men no longer fear HIV and willingly engage in high-risk sex without condoms? Why are rates rising again after two decades of prevention programs? And why do some HIV-negative men feel the need to become HIV-positive?

It arrives at a time when AIDS in the U.S. has receded from public attention, when films such as Mike Nichols' critically acclaimed HBO project, "Angels in America," confine themselves to the early years of the AIDS epidemic.

Hogarth's focus on "bug chasers" such as Hitzel is raising fears among some critics that her view is too narrow, and that when her film is seen by the public, it could give rise to a new wave of homophobia similar to the discrimination that emerged in the early 1980s when AIDS first appeared. ("The Gift" is scheduled to be shown Feb. 2 on the Sundance Channel, followed by a limited theatrical release in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco in March before going to other cities.)

Walter Armstrong, editor in chief of POZ magazine, which has chronicled the AIDS epidemic, believes that showing the movie to a wide heterosexual audience could demonize all gay men "by suggesting that we are so perverse that we would actually want HIV."

With her winsome smile, elfin haircut and Sharon Osbourne-like features, few would imagine Hogarth, an L.A. filmmaker who herself is gay, as a lightning rod for controversy.

Yet with her blunt criticism of "AIDS Inc." -- her term for the plethora of government and privately funded agencies working to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS -- and her dire warnings that gay men must take responsibility for their sexual conduct, Hogarth has become an unlikely crusader.

At last year's Outfest, the Los Angeles gay and lesbian film festival, she stepped onto the stage after a screening of "The Gift" to answer questions from the gay and lesbian community, as she has done countless times over the last year around the world. "Are you going into the bedroom and telling them how they should have sex and shouldn't have sex?" someone in the audience asked.

Hogarth bristled. "This isn't about going into people's bedrooms," she replies. "This is about a public health epidemic, and I think it needs to be treated like that."

"My documentary is about the large numbers of people who don't care if they get infected with HIV," Hogarth said in an interview. "... The infection rate is exploding, just exploding."

Putting the issue in focus

One of the most disturbing issues raised in the film is why young gay men would want to deliberately infect themselves with HIV. The men featured in the movie explain that they do so, in part, to fit in with their friends, many of whom are HIV-positive, because they believe that by becoming "poz," they won't have to worry about getting the virus, and because the development of anti-AIDS drug "cocktails" means the disease is no longer a death warrant.

Hogarth points to healthy-looking former Laker star Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who announced he was HIV-positive in 1991, and says he is the image the younger generation sees of an HIV-positive man.

"I think we absolutely have to get the message out that this is not some manageable thing, that you take a pill and everything is OK," she said.

Actor and gay activist Harvey Fierstein, star of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical "Hairspray," has rallied support for Hogarth's documentary, calling it "a film of great social importance."

"I think this is a film that not only serves us now but tells us where we are at this moment," he says. "Young men seeking inclusion in the gay world, it seems, seek it sexually first, which is kind of sad considering that we have so much more. When I was a kid, that was all there was -- gay bars -- and that was it. That was how you found other gay people. I had kind of thought that in the ensuing 30 years that we had gone so far beyond that....

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