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film review
  • Killing Patient Zero
  • Directed by Laurie Lynd
  • Classification N/A
  • 100 minutes


3.5 out of 4 stars

Laurie Lynd’s Killing Patient Zero asks an essential question: Where does a dead man go to get his reputation back?

It is the 1970s. The gay rights movement is emerging from eternal repression in the wake of Stonewall. Discos, bathhouses and unrepentant promiscuous sex become symbols of newly won freedom. Through interviews and archival footage, the first section of Lynd’s documentary joyfully captures the time: men coming out and finally living the life they want. It is a time of ecstasy.

Tragically, the golden age lasts a mere decade. In the 1980s, the gay community is struck by a pink frost. The medical community calls it gay cancer before settling on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, AIDS. Bigots whisper it is just punishment, sinners in the hands of an angry god.

Someone has to be blamed for this catastrophe. It can’t just be the mutation of cells. Enter French-Canadian Gaëtan Dugas. Dugas is an Air Canada steward. He is handsome, effervescent and vain; he has his uniform tailored tight to show off his body. There is no closet for him. Dugas loves to fly, and he loves to hook up with hundreds of partners a year.

Open this photo in gallery:

Gaëtan Dugas was long miscredited as 'patient zero' of the AIDS epidemic in North America.

Then he gets sick. He publicly questions whether AIDS is sexually transmitted ­– Lynd includes eerie footage of Dugas speaking at an early AIDS awareness meeting in Vancouver – and continues to have sex. (This isn’t as evil as it sounds; the link between sex and AIDS was still being established.) But he does something else. Researchers come to see him and Dugas provides them with business cards and phone numbers from his black book. His sexual record-keeping immeasurably helps their work.

Dugas gets sick, he gets better, and then he dies in 1984 at 31. That should have been the end. But then his own people victimize him. Three years later, San Francisco writer Randy Shilts writes And The Band Played On, a painstakingly researched history of the early days of the AIDS epidemic. There’s just one problem: no one cares about it. In desperation, Shilts’s editor, a now semi-repentant Michael Denneny, begs a publicist friend for help. The publicist has a diabolical plan: give the virulently anti-gay New York Post a small excerpt where Shilts singles out Dugas as the original sinner of the AIDS crisis. Dugas only appears on a few pages of Shilts’s massive book, but the details are lurid:

“When the moaning stopped, the young man rolled over on his back for a cigarette. Gaëtan Dugas reached up for the lights … He then made a point of eyeing the purple lesions on his chest. ‘Gay cancer,’ he said, almost as if he were talking to himself. ‘Maybe you’ll get it too.’”

Denneny gives the Dugas section to the tabloid. The Post bites, the story goes national and The New York Times plays catch-up. The book explodes. But there is a cost: Dugas becomes the face of Sodom. In the film’s most haunting moment, Denneny­ justifies his actions as “cultural judo.” By vilifying Dugas, he is serving the larger good of the community.

Was sacrificing one already dead man for the cause worth it? (Shilts would die of AIDS in 1994.) Lynd’s squadrons of talking heads – friends, doctors and scientists ­– argue that the scapegoating of Dugas was unforgivable, not to mention untrue. Lynd skillfully lays out the facts; Dugas and his lovers were just part of one of many early clusters of the disease. There are heartbreaking Catch-22 moments. Dugas was first labelled Patient O for “outside of California,” but someone along the way mistakes the O for a zero. There is no Patient Zero.

Lynd’s film is overstuffed with interviews, and at times, it is hard to keep track of all the players without a scorecard. But that is a minor quibble. I’ll remember the interviews with Dugas’s friends and fellow Air Canada workers. In those moments, Lynd transforms Dugas from a stick-figure antichrist to a charismatic man who helped others – whether it was airline friends or the frantic researchers who came to see him when he was sick­. He was not Lucifer. He was just a man.

Lynd has restored Dugas to imperfect flesh and blood. That is achievement enough.

Killing Patient Zero opens July 26 in Toronto

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