Mardi Gras Film Festival 2023 Review: How to Tell a Secret ★★★★★

How To Tell A Secret is a documentary.

How To Tell A Secret is a documentary about the filming of a documentary.

How To Tell A Secret is a documentary about the filming of a documentary about the staging of a play.

How To Tell A Secret is a documentary about the filming of a documentary about the staging of a play, that’s based on a verbatim play called Rapids.

Sounds complicated? It’s not. How To Tell A Secret expertly blends narrative forms in endless ways to deliver a simple message: there is no stigma to living with HIV.

This is how you make a fresh and fascinating documentary! What started life as a piece of verbatim theatre, telling the stories of Irish people living with HIV, caught the eye of filmmaker Anna Rodgers. Together, she and playwright/performer Shaun Dunne have turned his play, Rapids, into a compassionate and revelatory feature about the state of HIV education in Ireland.

They leave no narrative form untouched. At times, it plays out as a straight documentary, interviewing everyday HIV+ Irish people, then it blends in behind-the-scenes footage of the setting up of the interviews. Added to that are sequences of Dunne and three female actors rehearsing a version of the stage show. Mixed in are reenactments of scenes being talked about.

Yet there is no point in which How to Tell a Secret feels disjointed or convoluted. There is an emotional thread that binds it together, that of a deep respect for the humans whose stories are being told. Some are happy to be on camera, others are not, but Dunne approaches each story with empathy and presents them in the most impactful form.

Part of the narrative spine is the life and work of HIV activist Robbie Lawlor, whose story is intertwined with Dunne’s. “I want to be that person that I wish was there when I found out I had HIV,” he says. “We weren’t living through an epidemic of HIV. It was an epidemic of silence.”

What we find is a culture of ignorance, bred by silence and fear. Many of the interviewees left Ireland after their diagnosis to escape the reaction of their friends and family, creating an “HIV diaspora” throughout the globe.

In one moment that hits close to home for the Sydney Mardi Gras audience, Lawlor talks about how his plans to emigrate to Australia were destroyed by his diagnosis due to Australia’s strict immigration rules. 

A core part of the narrative is one of celebration and strength. Performer Enda McGrattan refers to himself and others as “HI-VIPs” in a world that with effective medical treatment, HIV is not a barrier to safe sexual relationships, as many, including Lawlor are now undetectable thus non-transmittable. As he stresses in the film, his long term partner is HIV negative and it hasn’t been a barrier to their relationship.

One of the most impactful journeys is that of “Aaron”, an HIV positive man whose story was part of Rapids and performed by Dunne, but who decides to tell his story himself on camera. “I’ve gone too far and seen too much to hide in the shadows.”

How to Tell a Secret is a revelation on many levels; from the diverse stories and lives it presents, and to the format-defying ways it tells them. It is simply one of the most exciting documentaries I’ve seen in years.

By Chad Armstrong

How to Tell a Secret screens at Queer Screen’s 30th Mardi Gras Film Festival on Monday, February 20th, 2023, with select screenings featuring a Q&A with the films subjects Robbie Lawlor and Enda McGrattan. Click here for tickets and more information.

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