With the Maker of a New Documentary About Men Seeking to Become
Left to right: Julia Brandreth, still
Author’s note: It was over a year ago that
documentary filmmaker Louise Hogarth first contacted me about
her latest project. She had tracked me down after reading a
Frontiers article I had written lamenting the rising rates of
seroconversion among young gay men.
“Have you ever heard of the term ‘bug
chaser’?” Hogarth asked me. Indeed, I had. Hogarth, a producer
of the Academy Award-winning documentary “The Panama Deception,”
was working on a new piece about bug chasers, or men (primarily
thought to be gay) who set out to become HIV-positive.
Our conversation that night eventually led
to my appearing briefly in her film. I am one of those “talking
heads,” giving opinions with abandon.
As her film, “The Gift,” is set
to debut at some of the most prestigious gay film festivals
across the globe–and may soon be coming to a theater or cable
channel near you–Hogarth finds herself in a maelstrom of heightened
scrutiny. A recent Rolling Stone article about bug chasers echoes
one of the major themes of her film. The fallout from this explosive
article continues to reverberate as Frontiers goes to press.
Louise Hogarth, alert as a cat, gives her computer
mouse a workout as she glides through various editing complexities
while working in the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) offices
in Los Angeles. AHF, Hogarth says, was the only AIDS organization
that offered her a small grant and donated office space so her
film project could have a home base.
Of late, her phone has been ringing off the
hook. Gay magazines are suddenly “hot” to interview
her, and gay film festivals are clamoring for her film. All
the while, she is diligently tweaking “The Gift,”
a documentary chronicling the phenomenon of bug chasers, or
people–primarily gay men–deliberately setting out to contract
HIV. The film also seems to call upon AIDS-prevention specialists
to do a better job amid rising infection rates, particularly
among young gay men.
Already booked at gay film festivals in Sydney,
London, Cape Town and Miami, Hogarth is very near to seeing
the ultimate fruition of her work. Her one-hour documentary
is the result of 80 hours of footage shot, and two and a half
years of hard work. And this month, “The Gift” premiered
at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival.
Hogarth was one of the producers on the 1993
film “The Panama Deception,” which won an Academy
Award for Best Feature Length Documentary. This time around,
she’s wearing the director’s hat.
Hogarth is disarming, to say the least. She
is both beautiful and bright. Her piercing green eyes lock you
in–silently demanding that your brain function at its highest
output. She is short on the small talk and long on probing questions.
“Have you ever knowingly infected someone?” she blithely
asked me and other interviewees. This lesbian from Alaska, with
her petite frame, belies the ferocity of spirit that seems to
To say Hogarth’s subject matter is disturbing
to most viewers is an understatement. Some scenes in this film
depict gay men romantically courting HIV. They seek it out,
then celebrate their resultant infection. One young man, however,
comes to almost instantly regret his fateful decision to receive
“the gift.” We also meet an orgy host who facilitates
infection, and with no apology.
After viewing a rough cut of the film with several
friends, I posed the following questions to Hogarth:
James L. Bloor: What were you thinking when
you decided to tackle this subject matter? I mean, you chronicle
mostly young gay men actively seeking HIV–rhapsodizing about
the relieved “freedom” that infection affords them.
Louise Hogarth: Pretty sad, huh? Boiled down,
I guess I’m trying to answer the question, Why would an otherwise
healthy gay man seek to become infected? What societal/emotional
constructs lead him down that path? Why do some others–who
don’t court the virus actively–seem to perceive it as mostly
Quite simply, I’m trying to bust this myth that
HIV is “chronic” and manageable; 17% of gay men who
tested positive in 2001 presented a virus that is immune to
almost all known anti-HIV drugs. Their options are severely
limited, and I fear an early death is imminent for many of them.
And that statistic doubled that of the previous year. You do
the math …
But what about those critics who will attempt
to dismiss you as just another man-hating lesbian? As “anti-sex”?
That’s just plain nuts. I adore all things sexual,
and admire gay men in their safe pursuit of it. Like many lesbians,
I’ve lost too many friends to this disease. A gay male piloting
this project might have his objectivity questioned, as might
a straight male or female. But as a lesbian who genuinely embraces
the gay male spirit, I’m hoping that I’ll be perceived as able
to bring equal measures of objectivity and compassion to this
Parts of your documentary, especially the
poignant reflections of Dr. Walt Odets, an esteemed champion
of gay male sexuality and safe sex, seem steered toward those
who have managed to remain HIV-negative. What is their role
in this ongoing epidemic?
It’s pivotal, I think. Understandably, gay culture
has embraced the victims of HIV. As the cultural mores of the
epidemic unraveled, we’ve naturally done our best to afford
the HIV-positive the esteem and worth they deserve. But in that
process, I fear that we’ve failed to acknowledge the genuine
guilt, fear and triumph of the HIV-negative. Their own efforts
have not been suitably applauded. As a cultural subgroup, we
need to embrace them more overtly, and call upon them to lead
our gay youth into a safer existence. More than most–excepting
the inscriptions upon tombstones–they have the potential to
save and protect.
Portions of “The Gift” clearly
question the worth and effectiveness of current AIDS-prevention
efforts. Do you posit something better?
I don’t, but the HIV-positive men I interviewed
seem to. These men, by and large, seem to have perceived a nearly
overt glamorization of AIDS. Afflicted as they were, they clearly
had difficulty identifying with the muscular, “healthy”
guys depicted in the pharmaceutical ads and safe-sex posters
available for their purview. These were men plagued by diarrhea
and fatigue, as well as cardiac, liver, pulmonary and skin disorders.
And lately some of them are threatened with this drug-resistant
staph infection. They’re experiencing a reality that the posters
Lately, we’ve seen gay male “glamoratti”
dying of “cardiac” and “cancer” complications
when, in fact, common knowledge dictates that these are AIDS
deaths. It saddens me that many of these newly dead are complicit
in the deaths of the younger generation behind them. Their denial
and shame creates a vacuum where youthful ignorance thrives.
What do you make of the Rolling Stone
article about bug chasers, and the assertion by some that its
claims are exaggerated?
I think “thou doth protest too much.”
These so-called experts, pundits and leaders of gay culture
who have chosen to stick their heads in the sand are throwbacks
to the early days of the epidemic when denial and enhanced victimization
reigned but did little to stem the tide of infection. Statistics
are easily convoluted and bandied about by both sides of this
I have seen–and this film chronicles–the abundance
of Web sites and persons who are dedicated to becoming purposefully
infected with HIV. They clearly think infection is “no
big deal.” The percentages and statistics are mostly irrelevant.
Myself, I wouldn’t have devoted two years to this project if
I thought it was just a passing fad or if I thought it didn’t
pose a threat to the vitality of a culture that I adore.
I mean, if it turns out later that “only”
500 guys are actively seeking the virus, doesn’t that transmute
to about 50,000 guys who are passively exposing themselves to
infection? I mean, what’s important in this debate? Image? Numbers?
Or potential lives lost?
I recently screened “The Gift”
for a half-dozen pals of mine. Some were HIV-negative, and some
were HIV-positive. To put it mildly, they were stunned and shocked
by much of the footage. The HIV-negative guys confessed that
they, too, had felt subtle pressure to seroconvert. While most
came to embrace the concept and message of your film, one viewer
remarked, “This film is entirely dangerous.”
Really? That’s good, I think. It means he was
shaken up a bit. I hate to resort to a clichÍ, but reality sucks.
I’m sorry if this film makes most gay men of conscience squirm,
but I wouldn’t have presented it if I didn’t feel certain that
gay men can fix this disconnect occurring, mostly, among our
gay male youth. After all, gay men have historically been natural-born
leaders. Certainly, we’re not going to get that from the Bush
administration. That this abhorrent behavior has emerged–whatever
statistics are eventually attached to it–is understandable
to me, as it is to most gay men, but ultimately fails as an
apology to the movement we’ve all embraced. And in the long
term? It’s a deadly paradox that merits confrontation and remedy.
Ignoring its reality will only rob us further of the humanity
that we’ve been mourning for over two decades now.
But aren’t you worried that your film will
be used by the religious right and conservatives in their continued
efforts to hurt our cause?
Heartbroken is more like it. Honestly, it grieves
me, the thought that this film–this labor of love for me–might
be used by religious hate-mongers to fatten their wallets. But
you have to understand, I’ve told no lies in this film. It may
well be deemed “sensational,” but I have not sensationalized
it. What you see is the truth as it unfolded before my eyes.
How does one apologize for the truth? While I regret the defensive
burden this film may place on the gay community, I’m optimistic
that lives might eventually be saved. Our enemies are not the
ones who are going to help the gay male community. Ultimately,
it’s only gay men who can do that.
So what’s the outcome you’re hoping for?
As documentary filmmakers we are not often permitted
“hopes,” yet I confess to some. … I hope that this
project will result in a thoughtful response and remedy to a
heightened crisis that has been simmering for years now. Gay
men, especially younger gay men, are seroconverting at increased
rates. This controversy is something that only thoughtful, compassionate
gay men can attend to properly. They did it in the early years
of the epidemic, and I hope that they find a way to do it now,
to re-energize and rethink the old prevention measures that
simply aren’t working anymore.
James Bloor can be reached via e-mail