In a new documentary, Steve Keeble and Ben Lord tell the story of AIDS in the UK
by Hank Trout
Five years in the making, the new documentary film After 82 tells the story of the AIDS epidemic in the UK in the best possible way—through first-hand accounts in the voices of people who actually lived that story. For some, this is the first time they have talked publicly about their HIV status. The film’s power lies in its simple, straightforward, unvarnished truth-telling.
Filmmakers/writers Steve Keeble and Ben Lord both hold degrees in film production from London Southbank University; both have also worked occasionally as actors (EastEnders and Holby City, BBC productions); and they worked together on filming Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton’s stage adaptation of Faith, Hope and Charity. In addition, the two have been a couple for twenty-two years, married for three. “For some the idea of living and working with your partner would seem like hell,” Steve recently told A&U, “but for us it’s the best thing in the world. We have made a few shorts, but After 82 is our first full-length feature film.”
In fact, initial plans for After 82 envisioned it as another short documentary film, in which a friend of Ben’s father agreed to talk on camera about living with HIV. Those plans changed and grew as word spread and enthusiasm for the project built. Ben told us, “Word about our short spread like wild fire and people came forward wanting to share their stories. We decided to turn the film from a short to a feature length. It was like we had unearthed a secret society when people came to us and wanted to talk openly with us about living with HIV. We spent months getting to know these people, building up trust before filming their stories. We shared tears and laughter; we became part of their lives and in some sense a family. We are so proud of them all.”
Steve elaborated: “We decided to concentrate on the early years of the HIV pandemic, for personal reasons. I was in my early twenties and was out on the gay scene and saw first-hand the devastation AIDS was having on my community. I worked at the London Lighthouse, the UK and Europe’s first residential and [adult] daycare center for people living with HIV/AIDS. I will never forget the feeling of helplessness and fear. When, some thirty years later, we began to research and realize that a documentary of this kind had never been done in the UK, I knew, not only from a professional point of view, that I had to tell the stories of what really happened in those early years, here in the UK. That whole time, especially at the London Lighthouse, has lived with me for all this time and now, through this film, although we can never bring those back that we lost, we can ensure that they and this time will never be forgotten. It makes us both very proud and honored that we have told this story.”
Younger than his husband, Ben came later to understand the impact of the epidemic. “Steve has always talked about his younger years on the gay scene and seeing how AIDS swept through the community, destroyed so many lives….I was a child when I first became aware of HIV/AIDS and did not really take notice until I went on the scene in the early 1990s. Even then I was not aware of the true personal destruction behind HIV/AIDS until I worked on the film…I would have liked to learn more about HIV/AIDS at school and also to add to that LGBT history.”
After 82 begins with the question, “What would you do if a deadly virus wiped out your circle of friends and lovers?” With an awareness that we safeguard our history only when we write that history ourselves, to avoid the “straight-washing” of our history that occurs when others try to tell it, the filmmakers talked with well-known advocates and activists in the UK, including Jonathan Grimshaw, Garry Brough, actor Dominic West (who also narrates the film), Jonathan Blake, and Peter Tatchell.
Human rights activist Tatchell was an especially fortuitous “get” for the filmmakers. A one-time Labour Party candidate for Parliament, in the 1990s he campaigned for LGBT rights through the direct action group OutRage!, which he co-founded. He has worked on various campaigns, such as Stop Murder Music, against music lyrics allegedly inciting violence against LGBT people, and writes and broadcasts extensively on various human rights and social justice issues. The Peter Tatchell Foundation promotes the human rights of individuals, communities and nations in accordance with established national and international human rights law. Asked about the anticipated impact of the film, Tatchell wrote that “[t]he film will be a reminder to older generations of what they went through and an eye-opener to younger people of the horrors they have been spared.”
Another interviewee of particular note is Dr. Rupert Whitaker. With somber eloquence, Dr. Whitaker relates the story of caring for his partner Terry who died of AIDS-related causes, the namesake of the Terrence Higgins Trust, the UK’s most renowned AIDS service organization—and whose cause of death he learned of months afterward in a medical journal. Dr. Whitaker shares parts of his experience as a man living with HIV, from severe night sweats to wearing a baseball cap and keeping his head down to hide the weight loss in his face, fearing No one is ever going to love me again. “Where once there was ignorance,” he says, “now there was hysteria.”
Each of these men interviewed is HIV-positive. Each has stories of struggle, and of triumph, in the epidemic, which they share freely in this documentary. Each of them summarizes his interest in participating in the film as a means of documenting his own personal history, of combatting the stigma and misunderstanding that still attach to the virus, and of honoring those who didn’t live to tell their stories. Their stories—some very somber, some told with humor—are all deeply moving.
“The people we interviewed,” Ben told A&U, “are worried that, the first generation of HIV survivors fear they and their stories will be forgotten. These stories need to be remembered for generations to come, because we as a community must not become complacent and forget that our freedom came with so much sadness. At the moment it seems to be a worrying trend in our community, in that we want to forget the past, all the struggles and horrors we have faced and fought, overcome.”
If the history of HIV/AIDS in the UK sounds familiar to American audiences, that’s because the trajectory of the story so clearly mirrors the story of HIV/AIDS in America. It’s all there, the early baffling, frightening stories of a “gay cancer”; the panic the virus caused in medical, governmental, and religious communities; the antipathy and outright bigotry of some in the government, the churches, and the media; the unconscionably slow response of the Thatcher government to the epidemic; the decimation of the LGBTQ community as friends, co-workers, lovers suffered and died; the stigma, the outright ignorance, the prejudice, and the criminalization that attached to the virus; and, with hope, the ways in which the LGBTQ community in the UK came together to take care of their own. It’s a story familiar to us American long-term survivors as it mirrors our own experience of the epidemic.
The nouns changed, but the verbs remained the same.
Despite a couple of interviews with female caregivers, some viewers will notice the lack of HIV-positive women in the film. This lack was not intentional. In fact, “[w]hen we started out with the project, we initially agreed to film everyone from the HIV community,” Steve said. “We wanted to film women but found…a lot of stigma towards women living with HIV. [The] women we did approach were reluctant to be interviewed; we understood their reasons and we accept and respect that.”
Although they had little trouble rounding up participants willing to be filmed telling their stories, like other filmmakers working with “dangerous” subject matter, Steve and Ben had a more difficult time securing financing for the film. “We did meet with resistance on so many levels. For some reason unbeknownst to us, some people do not want the story of the first generation of HIV survivors to be told. We were fortunate in the fact that people wanted to share their stories, but to receive support and financial assistance was really tough. We made the film on a very small budget. Thankfully, we had a small crew who were very dedicated and passionate. Also, Wandsworth Oasis and Terence Higgins Trust came to our aid.”
Founded in 1989, Wandsworth Oasis provides support to and fights stigma encountered by those living with HIV. The organization operates nine charity shops located in south London, as well as fundraising events; they have raised over £350,000 in grants to HIV-related projects and organizations during the last ten years alone. Since 1982, the Terrence Higgins Trust has been the UK’s leading HIV/AIDS charity and the largest in Europe. It is also the lead organization for Public Health England’s HIV prevention, providing services relating to HIV and sexual health. Its aim is to end the transmission of HIV in the UK; to support and empower people living with HIV; to eradicate stigma and discrimination around HIV; and to promote good sexual health.
As I write this, representatives from House of Film, the distribution company handling the worldwide distribution of After 82, are at the Cannes Film Festival hoping to secure a U.S. distributor for the film. “We are anxiously awaiting news! The film is getting much interest in the U.S. so whatever happens in Cannes, we still intend to bring the film to the U.S. whether that is in the form of a tour or festivals (we have interest from two festivals already).” A&U will keep readers updated on U.S. distribution.
One of the gentlemen interviewed for the film, Jonathan Grimshaw, summarized his participation—and the best reasons for making and viewing the film—thus: “Very few people diagnosed with HIV in the earliest years of the AIDS crisis are still alive and, as one of them, I wanted to give a sense of what it felt like at the time and what we did in response. I hope [the film] will bring alive, particularly for people too young to remember the early years of the epidemic, the history of how a maligned community was devastated by a disease but rallied to support its own, assert its humanity and inspire respect.”
I am convinced that, upon its release, After 82 will be recognized as an invaluable contribution to the history of the AIDS epidemic. It is precisely the kind of unvarnished, unapologetic, unfiltered oral history that we deserve—free of “straight-washing”! It will help to preserve and disseminate the truth about the AIDS Generation in the UK. For that, we owe filmmakers Steve Keeble and Ben Lord a loud, enthusiastic “Thank you!”
You can find more information about After 82 on their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/After82. For more information about Wandsworth Oasis, log on to www.wandsworthoasis.org.uk. Information about the Terrence Higgins Trust can be found at www.tht.org.uk.
Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-eight-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.