A powerful examination of the experiences of people who are living with HIV in Ireland today, How to Tell A Secret is a hybrid documentary film that looks at social stigma and the art of telling your story. The highly anticipated film will open on limited release in select Irish cinemas from Thursday 1st December, coinciding with World AIDS Day 2022.
Robbie Lawlor was diagnosed with HIV at 21 and became one of the youngest people to come out on Irish television. Enda McGrattan, also known as Veda, promised to keep their HIV status a secret for a decade but eventually broke free by releasing a song. And a group of Irish and migrant women, who cannot show their faces, found creative ways to have their voices heard…
In this compelling film, directors Anna Rodgers and Shaun Dunne use documentary, performance and genre-blurring storytelling techniques to communicate a powerful message. The stories in this film move between bodies of young men, migrant women, drag artists and activists. Featuring a cast of actors as well as ordinary people coming out on screen for the first time, the film also includes a dramatic tribute to Thom McGinty, aka The Diceman, with a reenactment of his historic appearance on The Late Late Show in the 1990s.
Based on a theatre show, director Anna Rodgers saw a performance of ‘Rapids’ by Shaun Dunne, and approached him to work together on an artistic collaboration for the screen. Together they expanded on the world of the original play by working with new contributors and a stellar cast of Irish actors including Lauren Larkin, Jade Jordan, and Eva Jane Gaffney, who take on the hidden stories of women who are living with HIV.
After successful screenings throughout 2022 at DIFF, the Galway Film Fleadh and GAZE, the film is now available to wider audiences, with the filmmakers hoping its reach extends even further in the years ahead.
Film In Dublin spoke with Shaun and Anna, to gain more insight into the aims, ambitions and process behind their emotional and educational documentary.
Shaun having told these stories on stage in Rapids and then again in this film, what is it like emotionally for you in that performative space to keep going through them? Has the impact on you changed over time while you’re performing?
To be honest the reason I was drawn to the work is because I relate to a lot of our contributors and to the experiences they’ve had, I can connect emotionally to some of things they’ve gone through. With the ‘Aaron’ perspective which is the story I hold in the film most strongly in terms of my contribution, performatively I found it easy to link with his anger and those feelings of rage and loss of trust. It’s something that’s always stayed with me and that I’ve always found quite easy to access.
When we’re filming the car sequence in the film, which is quite a volatile sequence with explosions and everything, I remember once the sound recordist saying “God, you’ve got a lot of anger in you” and thinking, yeah. I probably do! It hasn’t been something that that’s waned. Working with the actors or with Anna, having the opportunity to share in the themes of the work with people, you get to sit down and focus in, it’s been easy working with them. It feels real each time, so whether it’s on stage or whether we’re doing take after take after take, it’s been possible to get back into that seat and just drive forward with it.
And honestly, because the film also tells the story of your relationship with Robbie Lawler, usually when people break up you know they go their separate ways. They might meet for coffee once in a blue moon, but it’s quite unusual to continue to have a very intimate relationship in an artistic sense with your ex-boyfriend. As somebody on the outside of that, working with both Sean and Robbie, I have found that really quite a beautiful experience, it’s really lovely to see how they have worked together with us on this journey to make the film.
Yeah, I was only just saying to Robbie, we really need to meet up and talk about something that’s not the film, or HIV in Ireland! That’s definitely become a thing that’s kept us together in an amazing way.
And Maurice doesn’t mind!
Maurice his partner doesn’t mind – and I’m still single, feel free to put that in!
One thing that really struck me is seeing the way that Shaun works with the other actors to contextualise the performance that they’re about to give, and with the interviewees, to see how you establish boundaries, and explain where cameras are and introduce interviewees and actors comfortably to that space in front of camera. Anna as a documentary filmmaker, how do you do that behind the camera with the people that you’re working with?
It’s kind of funny one for me, it can look on camera like Shaun is directing the whole film, but of course the two of us were always doing that together. When I went to see Rapids, one of the things that attracted me to the play was that Sean seemed to be capturing a similar experience in documentary theatre that we have in in documentary filmmaking because behind the scenes when you’re making a documentary, there’s a huge amount of work done to create trust with your contributors, and that’s never on camera.
You can get questioned quite a lot about ethics, sometimes people just watch a film on air and they think that you don’t go through this process with your contributors, but there’s a huge responsibility in asking people to come on camera and tell their stories. Producers in particular are the hidden people working in that regard, and in this doc I’m hidden as well as the other director, but we worked really closely on that. We thought the process itself was interesting also under the theme of storytelling, which is pervasive throughout the film, that the viewer understands that exchange between the filmmaker and the contributor, whether that be an actor who’s holding the stories, people who are HIV positive, or whether that be a person who is HIV positive themselves. There was a very deliberate decision to include those moments.
What makes that process particularly important and how do you go through that with people?
In the context of the workshop where we’re giving testimony to people and trying to ground them in the day’s events, it’s a type of spiritual work, you have to take the time to really register the reality of what’s on the page in front of you. When I’m working within a documentary performance context, giving someone a transcript where they’re going to perform someone else’s reality, it’s important for me to make it clear to them, I don’t want them to pretend to be anybody else. Rather I want this experience, this story, to pass through you, as yourself. That to me creates an authenticity in a live theatre context. We often see that captured on screen, but in a theatre piece, if you go see a documentary performance and people are pretending to be other people and they’re doing accents and putting something on, I find it less engaging to watch. There’s something more in the trick of sitting with a piece, letting it pass through you, and for the performers that needs to be understood from the start.
As Anna was saying, we were trying to craft a piece that was ultimately about storytelling and the act of telling your own story. The intimacy and the procedure that has to happen for that to be done well and safely, as the onscreen director I found it hard sometimes to be in that place because you’re being filmed in conversation. It makes you feel vulnerable, you’re conscious of the camera. But with Eleanor our DP and with the entire team and the fact that I’ve got a relationship with Robbie and the cast, I could settle into it, fall away and get comfortable and try to direct, but it was definitely an adjustment. Usually, people don’t see me direct ever, you start to wonder oh God, am I being clear with these directions!? You don’t want people to watch you makes a mess of your process.
It’s very revealing.
It is like showing your hand a little bit, sometimes when theatre people have come to see it they’ve said it’s interesting to see how you run the room and set up – that’s actually very private for me! I was really happy that Anna had the idea to capture that element of the work. It’s nice to see it amplified in that way.
This is an art documentary in lots of ways. It’s made under the RealArt scheme with Arts Council funding, so actually showing the process is part of what’s interesting too: how do you tell stories? How do you translate testimony into a creative piece of work, and how do you work with people who can’t tell their own stories, can’t reveal themselves on camera?
Giving people an understanding of that is important and creating that safe space for people is something that we’ve learned over the years. You can’t walk into somebody’s house like Robbie Lawler’s mother, who’s never met you before, and put a camera on and expect them to be as raw and honest as she is. But she is very much herself in her scenes, because we have spent time warming her up, making her feel safe and comfortable, having a chat and a laugh.
We don’t rush things and we also make sure that people know that we’re not going to run away and broadcast it the next day. They know we’ll be checking back in with them, consent isn’t something that happens overnight; they don’t just sign a piece of paper and we don’t see them again, it’s an ongoing process. I think and hope that everyone who took part in this film, that they felt that we respected them and took care of them along the way, because it’s a really big deal to put yourself out there, and we’ve seen this country change because of the people taking that risk and that leap of faith.
Jade Jordan was there with you showing the film at the Galway Film Fleadh, and her passion and belief in this project was so clear. You can see that in all of the performers on screen. What was it like working with Jade, Eva-Jane Gaffney and Lauren Larkin?
They’re amazing. They got really personally involved, like it wasn’t just a job for them. I think they all cared really deeply about the message in the film. They all had a strong sense of the weight of responsibility of what they were doing in holding those stories for the women who had sent in their letters, had done interviews with us or had participated in the research around the play. That’s why those conversations with the actors were really important, they brought all of that on screen, they really felt it and let it live through them.
They are our audience in a lot of ways. They’re encountering this stuff for the first time and we’ve captured that as part of the process, so with the audience at home there’s a connection there.
These performers in particular are really emotionally attuned people. From a casting perspective it was important that we got people who really are interested and compassionate and care about other people, it wasn’t just a gig where they only want to turn up and say their lines. They all had a tremendous amount of flexibility also, which was important with this process in particular, because things were changing all the time. We were making this during lockdown and revising our plans constantly, the fact that Jade, Eva-Jane and Lauren trusted us when something shifted kept that authenticity, because always they were going with it. You don’t get that out of a lot of actors, it’s a very special gift that they gave us, so we’re extremely grateful.
Plus they let us film them behind the scenes, which made them quite vulnerable as well. As an actor you’re not used to having that fly on the wall camera, capturing you before you go on screen, which is essentially what we were asking them to do. That was quite an extraordinary thing for them and they went along with it, very generously.
What is the main take away that you hope audiences get from this film?
I’d like to think that maybe we’ve helped demystify HIV a little bit, that the path for people is a little clearer and they see where they lie on that path as well.
I think for HIV positive people and HIV negative people, we have a relationship, we’re not separate from each other. I think the film gets to show that relationship and how that relationship can be transformed into allyship. On the flip side a person who doesn’t know their HIV status or who may be HIV negative can be quite harmful towards somebody who is in a sensitive position, so I’m hoping that there’s an awareness from the film and that the film gives you a window into that awareness of the role you play in the conversation
Ultimately, we really want people to understand the ‘U = U’ message. As Robbie Lawler says, the film is a tool to get people talking about HIV, to understand that the story of AIDS and the crisis has moved on hugely since the 1980s and 1990s.
We’re at a moment of real change, there are more and more people coming out and living openly with HIV and thriving, you know? Living life the same as anybody else. U=U does mean that you cannot pass on HIV to a partner if you’re on medication. That’s such an incredibly life-altering piece of information that everybody needs to know, and if that message could be communicated to everyone in the country, I think it would start to chip away at the stigma that exists. We need people to talk about sex more in this country in general because it is a reality of, not everyone’s life but a lot of our lives!
It’s just not healthy to not be able to talk about these things. We see how that has effected Irish culture and our society over the years. Everything from the Magdalene laundries, abuse in schools, the cervical smear scandal, all these different things when you break them down, they’re all to do with people not breaking the silence around these issues, and that’s why storytelling is so important. We need people to feel comfortable to come out, talk about things, and then for us all to understand things a little better. For HIV the film is a way to get that conversation going.
It comes back to the film’s title, ‘How To Tell A Secret’. After you tell a secret, it’s not a secret anymore, you can’t put it back in its box. The film gives a real sense of catharsis in the stories that it tells.
Documentary is amazing on that front. Over the years having done documentary about everything from cancer, death, mental health, I always see people going on the same journey. They’re really nervous to tell their story, with lots of fears and trepidations about how people are going to receive it. They do it anyway because they’re amazing people, and they have this huge feeling of relief afterwards and get a lot of positive feedback from people.
It’s just so powerful. I firmly believe the reason why this country has changed over the years, is because of things that have happened in the media, interviews, documentaries about different things that have broken the silence on topics and have slowly eroded that sense of shame. This film is part of that journey, and there’s a long way to come, this is just the beginning.
Shaun you mentioned earlier how it would be nice to talk with Robbie about something else. Having developed this project for so long, are you starting to get to a place as a creative where you’re thinking about what’s next?
Anna and I have a feature film that we’re working on, a narrative drama, I’ve got a theatre piece that I’m working on, which is another kind of documentary hybrid, but from the process of making this work over so many years, I am definitely trying to talk about something different and have a little bit more fun.
For my whole 20s, I’ve felt under quite a lot of pressure, working on this project with the subject and the sensitivity of it and the relationships in it. Thankfully that’s evolved and that pressure has been shared and I think we’ve brought this work to a great point. For the next part of my career, I definitely want to make sure that I’m enjoying yourself.
If I was funny I would do a comedy! Not that it hasn’t been fun making this, but it’s a very specific type of work. Anna would agree it can be heavy, dealing in the documentary realm.
As a performer, you deserve to allow yourself that flexibility.
Yeah, just to lighten things up. I am entering more of a phase of my career where I’m operating in a little bit more of a joyous place, in terms of the content of the work. That’s the vision for the future. But that said, knowing my own slate and our slate together Anna, we’re not there yet!
It’s important as well to say that How To Tell A Secret is ultimately very optimistic, even though it goes into some dark places. It is a joyous and optimistic piece of work. It is a celebration at the end of the day.
How To Tell A Secret’s release on the 1st of December is set to coincide with World AIDS Day. What is something that could be done in Ireland in the next 12-18 months that could be valuable to support people living with HIV?
Personally, I would really love to see this film getting into schools and universities. I’m really passionate about sex education, I think it can be really powerful. We need to be more open and sex positive and embrace the fact that young people are sexually active, we need to address that by arming them with the tools to deal with that and all the responsibilities that come with being sexually active when they’re very young.
If we have better Sex Ed in schools that will have a dual effect. It’ll protect young people in terms of STDs, but it’ll also breakdown stigma, because if we all understand more about HIV that stigma would start to lose its power. Getting into schools and universities is crucial. If you look at the statistics for age 18-25, we have quite a high rate of HIV transmission in Ireland that age group and they’re people just coming out of school, going to university, or going out into the world. That’s where I’d love to see this go after we do our cinema release, but there needs to be a bit of help, support and funding, and buy-in from the government in order to do that.
How To Tell A Secret was directed by Anna Rodgers & Shaun Dunne and produced by Zlata Filipovic for Invisible Thread Productions. Music for the film was scored by Michael Fleming and Hugh Rodgers, Eleanor Bowman was the director of photography and it was edited by Paul Mullen. This film was made as part of the Reel Arts award with The Arts Council of Ireland / An Comhairle Ealaíon.
2022 marks 34 years of World AIDS Day – a pioneering global health campaign first initiated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1988. The global UNAIDS theme for 2022 is EQUALIZE. It is a call to action urging everyone to address the inequalities that are hampering aims to end AIDS by 2030.
2022 also marks the 40 years since the first reports of HIV and AIDS in Ireland in 1982. HIV remains a significant public health issue in Ireland. If you would like to support the work of HIV Ireland, you can donate today.