Also reviewed this week: Violent Night and North Circular
How To Tell A Secret (15A, 99mins)
Early on in his documentary How To Tell A Secret, Shaun Dunne uses clips from 1980s Irish TV ads about Aids.
They are not subtle. “Don’t sleep with a man who could kill you!”, trumpets one, while another sets out an even grimmer stall — “Just one act of intercourse could give you Aids and lead to death!”.
I remember that time, and the implication of these and other publicly funded ad campaigns was clear: Aids was a gay plague, transmitted among promiscuous men and sometimes, as collateral damage, to females.
Some troglodytes, here and elsewhere, even suggested the disease was a divine punishment for unnatural and sinful lifestyles: they were given airtime, especially in America, where the Reagan administration had emboldened all sorts of ‘Christian’ wingnuts.
So febrile was the atmosphere in the mid to late 1980s that Aids has become crystalised in the public imagination as an ailment specific to that time, an ancient plague now happily outmoded.
But in How To Tell A Secret, which Dunne co-directed with Anna Rodgers, this harmful fallacy is debunked in ingenious ways.
I learnt a lot from this film. Did you know, for instance, that HIV rates have never been higher in Ireland than they are today? Around 500 new cases are identified each year, one of the highest rates in Europe.
Public prejudice and a lack of education are the primary culprits, believes Dunne, who at one point in the film says: “I began to realise that we weren’t living in an epidemic of HIV, it was an epidemic of silence.”
With the help of actors Jade Jordan, Lauren Larkin, Eva-Jane Gaffney and awareness campaigners Robbie Lawlor and Enda McGrattan (aka drag queen Lady Vega), Dunne sets out to break that wall of silence. The film is based on his own stage play, and he and the other actors enact the testimonies of HIV-positive people who wished to remain anonymous: a common thread in all the testaments is shame.
Though the condition has long been eminently treatable, allowing the HIV-positive to live full and healthy lives, those three letters still evoke fear and hostility among the general populace.
Several contributors refer to being diagnosed with HIV as “an out of body experience”; others recall feeling that their lives were over, and that the only thing left was death.
And while a doctor tells one of them, “I’d rather tell you you were HIV-positive than diabetic because it’s much easier to treat”, that hopeful message is lost on the general public: many of the witnesses have experienced rejection, even from loved ones.
From activists and fellow ‘pos-casters’ Robbie Lawlor and Enda McGrattan, we get perspectives on life with HIV from either end of the generational spectrum. McGrattan remembers what life was like for gay people in Ireland in the 80s and 90s.
His great hero was Tom McGinty, aka the Dice Man, and one of the only openly gay men in this country in the 1980s.
Before McGrattan recreates one of the Dice Man’s great Grafton Street happenings, we’re shown moving footage of McGinty on Moore Street, scaring the fruit sellers as a suave Dracula. As McGinty is leaving, an old man he has mock bitten calls after him: “Listen, I hope you don’t get the Aids off that.”
When McGrattan was diagnosed with HIV at the end of the 1990s, he kept his condition quiet for many years after.
Born into a different time, Lawlor recalls the devastation he felt when he was diagnosed in 2012. “Who’s gonna love me now?” he remembers thinking. His mother for one, who took his diagnosis in her stride, and a great many others besides, because Lawlor is now a HIV counsellor.
How To Tell A Secret is an education then, and calls out societal prejudice and ignorance about HIV, which unnecessarily oppresses those who have it.
But the film ends on a positive note, as Lawlor, Dunne and a group of HIV positive individuals gather in Temple Bar to hear others openly declare their diagnosis in public for the very first time, shattering the conspiracy of silence.
Rating: Four stars
In Bad Santa, the gold standard of nasty Christmas films, an alcoholic department store Claus debauched his way through the festive season.
In Violent Night, the real Santa takes centre stage: he likes a drink too, but also a flair for violence, which is about to come in handy.
When Santa (David Harbour) gets stranded by his reindeer while delivering presents to the exceedingly wealthy Lightstone family, his arrival coincides with a heist.
A group of ne’er-do-wells led by a chippy mercenary calling himself ‘Mr Scrooge’ (John Leguizamo) are intent on stealing $300m from frosty matriarch Gertrude Lightstone (Beverly D’Angelo), and are not above a spot of torture.
When a winsome little girl called Trudi (Leah Brady) makes contact with Santa, the big man summons his ancient warrior past. Directed by Tommy Wirkola, Violent Night makes clumsy nods to Home Alone and Die Hard, but lacks either film’s charm.
Intended as a satire, it is gory and unpleasant, mean-spirited in the extreme, and entirely without purpose. The most extraordinary thing about it is that it ever got made at all.
Rating: Two stars
Made during the Covid lockdowns, Luke McManus’ roving, ragged documentary endeavours to tell the story of the North Circular Road, that venerable old Dublin avenue that sweeps all the way from the Phoenix Park to the edge of the docklands.
Music is at this film’s core and at various points, musicians like Gemma Dunleavy and Séan Ó Túama express their complex feelings about the area in song.
Ó Túama, a tin-whistle player, speaks movingly about his experiences in a mental institution, and the film in general moves between proletarian nostalgia and grim doses of reality.
Mountjoy Prison casts a glum shadow over one section of the North Circular, as does the building that once housed Grangegorman psychiatric hospital.
But the mood overall is upbeat, and we hear residents of O’Devaney Gardens sing the communal praises of a complex that is steadily being dismantled.
The black and white cinematography from McManus and others is exceptional, particularly a marvellous sequence around a bonfire. It does all get a bit sentimental at times though.
Rating: Three stars