What happens when a group of people living with HIV gather to watch and discuss a film about the epidemic’s darkest, early days?
In 2014, HBO released The Normal Heart, a film based on Larry Kramer’s 1985 play of the same name. You might think — due to the critical buzz it received at the time of its release and then again during the Emmy and Golden Globe Awards — that everyone has seen it. That is far from the case.
For those unfamiliar, the story of the film is based on Kramer’s experiences during the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in New York City (1981–1984) when people were dying quickly and frequently. The main character, Ned Weeks, joins with like-minded individuals to form an organization that would fight for the sick and dying called Gay Men’s Health Crisis. In addition to offering an unflinching look at the reality of the epidemic — people suffering wasting, seizures and the purple lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma — it also shows the deep disagreements about how to best address the disease. The film is emotional, vivid, sad and empowering.
I showed this film to my HIV Closed Group, a therapy group composed of gay men who are living with HIV. It was the first time any of the group members had seen the film. As we watched, I heard both audible gasps and muffled cries. But through it all, they were absolutely glued to the screen.
When the film was done, we took some time together to process. Several members were especially glad the group watched it together — sharing the experience similar to the way they share living with HIV. Most found that the film felt very real and that they could relate to what the characters went through. Some were affected by the fact that they might have faced similar circumstances but for the accident of good timing. The film motivated several to volunteer to help less fortunate people living with HIV — even those who had not yet publicly declared their status.
Films like The Normal Heart can open minds and change lives — as can films like Larry Kramer in Love and Anger, a documentary about Kramer’s life, or Angels in America, which looks at a similar period from different points of view. Watch these works with your friends, discuss them, and keep the conversation growing.
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Last modified: October 8, 2019