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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

"It's 22 years since we've known how not to get AIDS. Yet, every 15 minutes, an American [who is HIV-negative] converts to HIV-positive. Somebody is doing it.... I do a commentary ... -- I'm kind of the Andy Rooney of homosexual culture, if you will -- and I did a piece on 'Why am I still doing AIDS benefits 20 years into this?' "

Indeed, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta report that an analysis of 102,590 people found with HIV in 29 states from 1999 to 2002 showed that HIV diagnoses increased 17% among gay and bisexual men and 7% among men overall. In a statement accompanying the report, CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said, "Fighting HIV in America is as urgent [today] as it was more than two decades ago when the epidemic began."

Meanwhile, Los Angeles County health officials say they routinely interview persons newly found with AIDS and ask them about their sexual behavior. Among men who say they have they have had sex with men, 10% reported having 10 or more male partners in 2000, and that percentage increased to 25% in 2003.

Fierstein praises Hogarth for putting the issue in focus.

"She had a vision and she went for it," he says. "She sacrificed for it. She stood up to a lot of opposition to say, 'This is the truth.' I think this is an amazing lady."

Experienced filmmaker

Hogarth, who's from Fairbanks, Alaska (which she calls "the land of the individual"), is not a newcomer to filmmaking. She is founder and director of Dream Out Loud Productions, an independent documentary company and, in addition to "The Gift," has worked on documentaries dealing with human rights and poverty. She has a co-producer credit on the 1993 Academy Award-winning feature documentary "The Panama Deception," and a year later wrote, directed and produced a documentary about a battered woman trying to get of out prison titled "Ollie Mae Johnson's Petition for Clemency." In 2002, she produced a film called "Does Anybody Die of AIDS Anymore?" that she made while directing "The Gift."

Like other independent filmmakers, she fell into a financial hole to make her movie. She said she sold her home and went without a paycheck for more than 3 1/2years to produce the $125,000 documentary, shooting 80 hours of footage. She was turned down for grants, and nearly every major AIDS organization kept its distance.

"You know what people said to me?" she recalled. " 'You are so brave.' That was the quote I always heard. 'You are so brave.' Or 'You are going to get in a lot of trouble.' "

Only the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in L.A. provided support for the project: $10,000, along with an office and editing space.

"We gave our support because it's been clear for some time that prevention efforts are failing -- they are not hard-hitting enough," said foundation President Michael Weinstein. "She sacrificed a great deal to make and promote this movie. They try to portray her as a prude, which she is anything but. I think she came into this thinking that, of course, everybody would be united in this cause. I think it's been shocking to her. It's kind of gotten her dander up that she hasn't gotten more support."

Hogarth has traveled from continent to continent to screen her film, holding lengthy question-and-answer sessions with audiences to get her message out. The film has been screened at more than 100 film festivals, been shown to students at medical schools, and won the best documentary award at last year's Newfest, the New York Lesbian & Gay Film Festival.

One of the film's central characters is Hitzel who, at 19, ignored warnings about practicing safe sex and began chasing HIV in San Francisco.

Now a sophomore majoring in Spanish and mass communications at the University of South Dakota, Hitzel, who turns 22 this month, said he is HIV-positive.

In a recent telephone interview with The Times, Hitzel explained why he threw caution to the wind: "Initially, something in me said you probably shouldn't do that, but after a while, I thought [becoming HIV-positive] would make me more popular. I ended up doing it once or twice. After a while, it became apparent people would like me if I didn't have a condom."

Hitzel has become something of a poster boy for the film. Hogarth asked him to participate in her movie after reading a first-person account he wrote for POZ in February 2002, in which he discussed his "bug chasing" as a "suicide mission." He also was featured in a Rolling Stone article about "bug chasing" that drew harsh criticism last year from health experts and AIDS groups.

Hitzel's use of the drug crystal meth during his "bug chasing" in San Francisco is not explored in the film. Had it been, critics believe, it would have shown how complex the issue of why gay men engage in unprotected sex really is. (When smoked, injected or ingested, crystal meth becomes a powerful stimulant that puts the user in an alert, pleasurable state.)

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