Meghan Mickela reviews Shaun Dunne and Anna Rodgers’ artistic exploration of HIV disclosure How to Tell a Secret.
More than forty years after the start of the AIDS/HIV epidemic, How to Tell a Secret is a dutiful expression of living beyond a diagnosis. Directed by Shaun Dunne and Anna Rodgers, this film highlights the stories of those whose lives have been affected by HIV in Ireland. Rather than using the project as a cautionary tale, the subjects share their ‘secrets’ and how their lives have continued despite their diagnosis. It is stressed throughout the film that its function is not to present another somber outlook on this disease, as we see there are many subjects living happily, rather, the film is meant to pose the exact question the title suggests. How do you tell a secret?
Many of the subjects in the film use the platform to inform their loved ones they are HIV positive. Actors perform monologues of real people’s lived experiences in learning they have HIV and telling their loved ones. Some scenes play out as recreations of the events themselves. Blending elements of theatre into the film, Dunne and Rodgers create a poetic tale of rebirth.
Shot by cinematographer Eleanor Bowman, the film relies on imagery to convey the depth beyond the interviews. The dramatic readings were shot in an abstract manner to draw out the emotion. Tribute is paid to infamous street performer Thom McGinty, one of the first outspoken voices on the AIDS crisis in Ireland through a performance on Grafton Street by the drag queen Veda. She holds up a sign reading “A kiss is just a kiss, undetectable equals untransmittable”, a powerful nod to the impact of McGinty’s efforts.
While much Dunne and Rodgers’ interpretation is successful, there are some elements that fell flat. Film adaptations of theatre often play out much slower, and this is no exception. As both a documentary which blends multiple components, some sections of How to Tell a Secret were sedate in pacing in their attempts to merge genres. These moments were few and far between but worth mentioning with a 110-minute runtime. Taking on the role of telling stories on behalf of HIV positive patients is handled with propriety. Experiencing the interpretation of stories and the way in which they are brought to life is what this film excelled at.
After the film, guests were treated to a Q & A with the filmmakers and one of the subjects, activist Robbie Lawlor. Director Shawn Dunne discussed continuing working with the project after doing a tour with the theatre version of the film. He stated that he “felt a lot of responsibility when people come to see the show” but working with Anna Rodgers and producer Zlata Filiplovic encouraged him to “go back to the work to amplify the work and the community”. Lawlor thanked the filmmakers for their work and encouraging the importance of identifying those living with HIV as human, adding, “I always say put the H back in HIV.”
The event ended with multiple subjects and crew joining the filmmakers onstage for a standing ovation. The audience reaction to the film was much like what one might expect, a sold-out screening, supporters packed into the Irish Film Institute, heaping praise on the filmmakers. The impact of How to Tell a Secret‘ was certainly poignant for some, as one woman in the audience stated: “I will take this away with me now and I will make a point of talking about this film to everyone that I meet.”
How to Tell a Secret screened on 28th February 2022 at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.