A Feature Film Takes the Pulse of AIDS, Broken Hearts & Finding God
by Chip Alfred
Heart Breaks Open isn’t just a film about someone’s heart breaking. It’s the story of one man’s odyssey on the road to self-discovery and his quest to know the Holy Spirit—wherever that may take him.
The impetus for making the film, shot entirely on location in Seattle, was concern about the rising rate of HIV infection among the city’s bathhouse community. Producer and co-writer Basil Shadid, a self‒described “recovering Catholic,” and his filmmaking partner Billie Rain set out to make a film about HIV/AIDS that poses questions. “Who would Jesus be if he were here today? What would be his cross to bear? What if Jesus was an HIV-positive queer man living in Seattle?”
The main character’s name is Jesus (pronounced like the Christian savior). Played by Maximillian Davis, Jesus is a poet and role model queer activist. He works for a crisis center assisting victims of domestic violence, particularly those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Jesus and his transgender boyfriend Johnny (Samonte Cruz) seem to have a strong, loving relationship—until Jesus confesses he cheated on Johnny and had unprotected sex. When Jesus learns he’s HIV-positive, he sends a brief text to Johnny—“+” is all it said. Not only does this end up pushing Johnny further away, but suddenly Jesus’ whole world turns upside-down.
“I saw the main character [Jesus] as someone who has two sides, his idealized self and his shadow self,” explains director and co-writer Rain. “When he gets this diagnosis, he has to look at his shadow self and face it.” What he’s facing is a lot of guilt and shame. He’s ashamed he wasn’t sexually satisfied with his partner, and found gratification having an anonymous bathhouse encounter. He regrets deceiving Johnny and potentially putting him in danger with his risky behavior.
Jesus’ innermost thoughts and feelings are represented by his poetry, woven into the film with recurring voiceover segments. The poems Jesus writes are inspired by the works of June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and Alice Walker. In one poem he reflects on the first time he held Johnny in his arms.
Handsome boy, I didn’t plan to break your heart open and trade it for a virus that croons my name like a gospel story and calls me home.
Of course, Jesus’ ultimate guilt trip comes from the strained relationship with his family. A Thai/Chinese man, Jesus wasn’t welcomed with open arms when he came out to them. They were worried for his safety. At the time, he promised his mother he wouldn’t get AIDS, but how could he have known?
“This isn’t who I’m supposed to be in this world,” Jesus confesses to his HIV counselor, trying to come to grips with what’s happening to him. “I’m a loser. I’m a victim,” he says, feeling like the tables have turned on him—the man who victims turn to for help. “I don’t like looking at myself that way.” Alienated and confused, Jesus embarks on a self-destructive path and attempts suicide, leaving him unconscious and alone on the floor of his apartment.
If not for a Good Samaritan drag queen nun who lives in his building, Jesus might have met his Maker lying on that apartment floor. But Sister Alysa Trailer was not about to let that happen. Sister Alysa, who also goes by Michael, rescues Jesus, gets him to a hospital and saves his life. After being discharged from the hospital, Jesus winds up staying with Michael, who has been HIV-positive for ten years. Michael becomes a friend and mentor to Jesus, helping him enjoy life again. He introduces Jesus to a crucial part of his support system, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an international organization of “21st century nuns” that raises money for AIDS charities and educates the public about safe sex. “They’re beacons in the queer community,” says Rain. “They spread this amazing love and joy.”
Brian Peters, who plays the role of Michael/Sister Alysa, knows firsthand what Jesus is experiencing. Like his character, Peters has been living with HIV for about a decade. “I had a freak out period,” he recalls. “Then I started to channel my energy into lending a hand to people who are not as strong and helping them realize they’re not the only ones going through it.” Peters educated himself about the disease and began sharing his story with others. “I’m constantly outing myself to show people, ‘This is what HIV looks like today.’ We need to continue to have this conversation.” Now a successful entertainer and entrepreneur, Peters says he’s healthy, happily partnered and busier than ever.
Doubling as an associate producer on the film, Peters says Heart isn’t the glossy Hollywood version of an HIV/AIDS saga, nor is it one big downer. The movie simply tells it like it is. “It shows a balanced reality—brutally honest, in your face and unafraid. It’s about self-education, self-awareness, and learning from your mistakes.”
Heart was shot in 2010 in thirteen days and completed in a little over a year. The original script was a basic four-page outline. Actors improvised scenes in real locations around the city with real people they met everywhere they went, giving the finished product a cinéma vérité feel. Heart has been showing since March, 2011 at gay and lesbian film festivals in the U.S. and abroad—including screenings in Mumbai, London and Berlin. On September 9–10, it will be showcased at the Gender Reel Festival in Philadelphia, the first festival of its kind on the East Coast. “It’s a place for enhancing the visibility of gender nonconforming, gender variant and transgender identities and experiences,” says festival co-founder Joe Ippolito. The multimedia festival will showcase more than thirty films as well as photography and art.
The festival’s mission is to educate the public about queer communities while being inclusive of everyone. Organizers hope to attract more mainstream attendees as part of Philly Fringe, a sixteen-day alternative arts festival presented without a selection process to achieve total artistic freedom. Ippolito deems the HIV theme in Heart Breaks Open vital subject matter, especially for this festival. “HIV is still very much an issue that has become a little underweighted, and people are still being exposed to it,” he asserts. Planning a Q&A session after the film, Ippolito hopes the film will start a dialogue about HIV/AIDS in the transgender community.
In a scene near the film’s end, Jesus loses his way on the journey to find himself and accept his HIV status. He writes in his journal: If you want to know God, what? Thank the Lord he finally learns the answer.
Chip Alfred wrote about the film Life, Above All in the July issue.