Co-directed by Anna Rodgers and Shaun Dunne and based on Dunne’s 2017 play Rapids, How To Tell A Secret (★★★★☆) takes on the subject of navigating the social expectations around HIV in Ireland, particularly the subject of disclosure — who do you tell, and when, and most importantly, how do you do it on your terms?
For the film’s subjects, their participation in Dunne’s project is their answer to the question posed by its title.
The idea behind the project is that actors deliver the coming-out stories of people living with HIV, putting a human face on the stories while allowing the owners of the stories to maintain their privacy for reasons that are sadly predictable even in a modern, progressive society where HIV is highly treatable but still carries social stigma.
When discussing their need for discretion, they bring up their need to feel safe in their communities, to maintain reputations and relationships with their parents or children, or the simple need not to feel exposed before they are ready.
How To Tell A Secret does follow directly from the play it is based on by showcasing monologues about HIV disclosure, but it also examines the creative process and afterlife of the play, and pans out to examine where exactly modern Irish society is on the subject of HIV.
Dunne and Rodgers play a bit with the documentary format, and the film ends up being as much a documentary about its own making. With such a wide mandate, it comes dangerously close at points to broadening its focus too much, but it remains tight and clips along at a good pace.
Characters and stories emerge readily from the film’s narrative. Dunne himself features prominently, as does a man going by an assumed name whose story we return to throughout.
Two Irish activists, Robbie Lawlor and Enda McGrattan (a sometime drag queen who performs under the name Veda) are particularly charismatic and, between the two of them, contribute some of the film’s most entertaining and touching moments.
To the extent that How To Tell A Secret suffers at all, it is in the way it splits focus and occasionally navel-gazes, losing itself in the process of its own creation.
To Dunne and Rodger’s credit, the film keeps its focus specifically on the subject of HIV disclosure rather than HIV in general, and assumes a certain base level of familiarity and understanding about the nature of the virus and its social context from its audience.
Many of the conversations will be familiar to people with a familiarity with HIV, either because they have it or know people who do — one participant casually delivers a memorable anecdote about a doctor who said, “I’d rather tell you you were HIV-positive than diabetic because it’s much easier to treat,” a point which the film strongly (and probably correctly) hints that more people need to hear.
How to Tell a Secret plays exclusively in the Virtual Festival through Oct. 29.
Reel Affirmations 2023 includes the Virtual Film Festival, providing online access to 43 films for those film lovers who cannot attend the festival in person, with a viewing window from Oct. 23 to 29.
Browse the full Virtual Festival catalog here.
Buy Virtual Festival passes here.