Directed by Laurie Lynd, Killing Patient Zero explores the AIDS phenomenon and the life of the eponymous patient zero, Gaëtan Dugas. In an interview with Bohemia Euphoria’s Platform Director, Miranda Fleming, Laurie shares his inspiration for the film, the reasons behind certain stylistic choices and his deep personal connection to the soul of the patient zero myth. “My mantra for the film was I’m not judging anyone.”
The film touches on the stark disparity between Gaëtan as a popular and beloved individual and as the figure who came to be known as patient zero and inaccurately, the man who brought AIDS, colloquially known as the “gay cancer”, to America. In Laurie’s own words, when he first read And the Band Played On, he “bought what Randy Schilts was saying about Gaëtan” and thought “wow, what a terrible man, he’s horrible.” It was certainly shocking to learn the truth about AIDS, that symptoms typically manifested years to a decade after infection and that Gaëtan, patient #57, who played a significant role in helping the AIDS task force to perform contact tracing, was nowhere close to the source of the disease.
Being immersed into the era, the film’s audience is given insight into two varying lifestyles led by gay men in the ’70s and ’80s. Men such as Gaëtan Dugas and Randy Schilts who were openly gay and unapologetic about it in contrast to men who were a little more covert about their sexuality. Laurie himself notes missing the carousing of ’70s New York because he was “too shy to go to a gay club”. In the film, Gaëtan’s colleagues from their time as Air Canada stewards noted his flamboyant nature, from the way he carried himself to his outward appearance, wearing tight fitting clothing and makeup sometimes.
Though only a few decades ago, life as a homosexual was significantly different to what it is in the present. It was illegal, painted as a depravity and until about eight years before AIDS hit the gay community, it was listed in the American psychiatric association handbook as a mental illness. With this context in mind, it might be a lot easier to understand why “someone like Gaëtan was doubtful of what doctors were telling him” because they had been trying to medicalise and police the sexuality of the gay community for so long. “They don’t understand the unique opportunity we finally had and the doubt that was long planted regarding the medical establishment.” Laurie stated.
“I don’t think it’s too extreme to say a Holocaust was allowed to happen to my generation of gay men. People knew it.”
While Ronald Reagan’s administration literally laughed at the mention of AIDS when it was brought up in a press conference in 1982, early AIDS researchers selflessly put together a workshop and a team, stealing hours and staff from other projects to get work done because they wouldn’t get financed. “Just the fact that money wasn’t thrown at it right away is what is still so shocking and it’s completely because of prejudice.”
All over the world, people have voiced their astonishment at how quickly the COVID vaccine was created. In contrast, AIDS, 40 years on still has no vaccine. “I can only assume it’s because it’s still seen as a somewhat dirty disease you should be able to not get it. I also know that because it mutates so much, it’s very hard to make a vaccine.”
The film is still relevant today for numerous reasons. Though it wasn’t mentioned in the film, the book on which it’s based, Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic by Richard McKay, touches on how it’s an age old thing to blame the “other” for disease. Like Jews being blamed for well poisoning in the middle ages or women being accused of being witches. It’s that same bias and prejudice of the “other” seen again in the way gay men are portrayed at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
When asked about the similarities he could identify between the outbreak of AIDS and COVID 19, Laurie concluded that “the interesting thing that doesn’t change is the need to blame.” Wrongly blaming Asian people for COVID 19 runs parallel to blaming gay men for AIDS, “when in both instances, we’re talking about a microbe. It’s not something that is anyone’s fault. I find it depressing that the blame thing is happening and that there’s a spike in anti-Asian violence.”
From unequivocally impactful events like the Stonewall Riots of 1969 to the Act Up movement of 1987, it was made apparent that the gay community was taking a stand to be “othered” no longer. “Suddenly people saw gay people and they didn’t have horns and our community was so strong and rallying around itself. It was harder to ignore queer people after that.” The film features several stakeholders of the gay liberation movement, for instance Fran Lebowitz, who Laurie referred to as “a gay every man” who could accurately represent the those times in conjunction with bringing humour to them.
You can stream Killing Patient Zero with the full introduction and Q&A with Laurie Lynd and Miranda Fleming here.