DOC NYC 2019 Film Review: Killing Patient Zero ★★★★

This Sunday 10th November sees the United States premiere of Laurie Lynd’s Killing Patient Zero at DOC NYC in New York. It’s a compelling exploration of how a French Canadian flight attendant, Gaetan Dugas, came to be branded by the media as ‘Patient Zero’ and was widely blamed for bringing the HIV virus into the US. The feature length documentary is based on Richard A. McKay’s book Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic and had its world premiere earlier this year at Hot Docs in Canada.

The film takes time to establish the cultural landscape in which the AIDS crisis hit, following the progress made by the gay liberation movement. The documentary’s focus then begins to shift to Dugas himself, while continuing to contextualise the genesis of ‘Patient Zero’. Seeking to discover the man behind the sensationalist headlines, we hear from friends and acquaintances of Dugas, including those who worked with him as cabin crew on Air Canada. We don’t hear from any members of Dugas’ family, but do get an insight into why they have never spoken publicly about him following his death.

Gaetan Dugas

Lynd does an effective job of balancing this personal portrait with an absorbing and detailed examination of how the published results of a medical study Dugas agreed to take part were used to vilify him. We hear from retired members of the AIDS Task Force including Dr Harold Jaffe who comments at one point, “it was said at the time and I think it’s true, if the outbreak had occurred in the heterosexual population they would be all over it, but it was easy to marginalise gay men at the time and say, well, who cares?” The interview with another former AIDS Task Force member William W. Darrow is particularly engaging and poignant.

Some archive material used to convey the climate during the early onset of the crisis will be familiar, such as a TV anchorman matter of factly reporting on a poll finding that 50% of Americans favour quarantine of HIV+ people. One particular archive sequence though is likely to be less well known and is used to chilling effect here. While the film recounts the way the Reagan administration refused to acknowledge the crisis, we hear audio from the White House press briefing of October 15th 1985, where radio host Rev. Lester Kinsolving was the first White House correspondent to publicly ask the administration about HIV/AIDS. We hear him pose a question to White House Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes: “does the President have any reaction to the announcement by the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta that A-I-D-S is now an epidemic in over 600 cases?…over a third of them have died. It’s known as gay plague.” Kinsolving continues through laughter from the press pool “it’s a pretty serious thing, one in every three people that get this have died…” Larry Speakes takes the question as material for a dismissive joke “I don’t have it…do you?” and later “I don’t know anything about it.” The White House press pool continues to erupt in laughter.

Gaetan Dugas

While watching Killing Patient Zero it’d be hard not to see some comparisons between the conservative politics of the 80s and today. Among the film’s impressive roster of commentators are author and public speaker Fran Lebowitz and critic and academic B. Ruby Rich who both have some typically insightful observations. Rich comments at one point “it’s really grotesque the way people behaved…very much in the same way that in 2016 you said ‘who are these people who voted for that man?’ You knew who those people were back then in 1980s, they haven’t gone away.”

We also hear from Michael Denneny, the editor of And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts, published in 1987 which named Gaetan as ‘Patient Zero’. Denneny describes in detail how the New York Post came to run a story about the book which focused exclusively on the ‘Patient Zero’ aspect, with the headline ‘The Man Who Gave Us AIDS’ on the front page of its October 6th 1987 edition.

Riveting throughout, Killing Patient Zero uses a traditional documentary structure, combining talking head interviews with archive video, audio and photographs to impressive effect. Trevor Ambrose’s skillful editing and Lynd’s writing feed us information at a fast pace, building momentum and creating a frequently intriguing and ultimately deeply moving account of how events unfolded.

By James Kleinmann

Killing Patient Zero has its US Premiere this Sunday November 10th 2019 at 9.05 PM at the SVA Theatre, New York as part of the 10th DOC NYC. For more information and to purchase tickets head to the official DOC NYC website here. To read more about Killing Patient Zero visit the film’s website here.

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