Film Reviews

Review: ‘Killing Patient Zero’

Hot Docs 2019

Gaétan Dugas who was dubbed “Patient Zero” of the AIDS crisis.
Courtesy of Hot Docs


Killing Patient Zero
(Canada, 98 min.)
Dir. Laurie Lynd
Programme: Special Presentations (World Premiere)

“People who are young do not understand in any real way, even if they know the fact, that homosexuality was against the law,” says author and activist Fran Leibowitz in Killing Patient Zero. “It was against the law—not just that your parents didn’t like you or people you went to school with didn’t like you. It was actually a crime.” Leibowitz makes an emphatic point in the introductory of Killing Patient Zero that encapsulates the pervasive homophobia that allowed the AIDS crisis to devastate the gay community while the powers that be failed to take action. More significantly, Leibowitz’s comment highlights the significance of the period of euphoria that shortly preceded the AIDS outbreak as gay men and women enjoyed hard fought sexual liberation after being considered criminal deviants simply for whom they loved. It’s in this context that one must appreciate the life of Gaétan Dugas, who didn’t waste a second of his freedom.

Forget everything you thought you knew about the man known as “Patient Zero.” Laurie Lynd’s Killing Patient Zero says au revoir to the falsehoods that have characterized Gaétan Dugas, who unwittingly became the “face” of the AIDS crisis when a typo marked him as the point of origin for the virus as it devastated the gay community in the 1980s. Lynd’s film, adapted from the book Patient Zero & the Making of the AIDS Epidemic by Richard A. McKay, corrects history to inform viewers that Dugas was not the catalyst for the deadly contagion, but rather, like far too many members of the queer community, a victim of it. The film explains how the “zero” that marked Dugas like the scarlet letter was actually an “O” to signify him as “Out of California” in an elaborate cluster graph charting early known cases of HIV/AIDS. Lynd’s film reveals that Dugas was labelled “Patient O” (not “zero”) because he provided invaluable help to researchers trying to study and understand the virus.

Killing Patient Zero bestows a posthumous medal of honour upon Dugas as it corrects his story. Lynd, making a strong feature documentary debut after features like Breakfast with Scott, the hit TV series Schitt’s Creek and a number of award-winning shorts, puts Dugas’ personality and joie de vivre at the forefront of Killing Patient Zero. The film humanizes a man who has been erroneously demonized throughout history.

Drawing upon an engaging roster of talking heads that includes many of Dugas’ colleagues, friends, lovers, and members of the queer community, the doc builds a positive, inclusive, and productive conversation about the AIDS crisis from the perspectives of those who lived it. His colleagues describe an energetic young man who loved to fly and thrived on the mobility of his career as a flight attendant, which allowed him to visit various metropolitan areas where young gay men embraced their sexuality without fear. Dugas’ peers rebuild “Patient Zero” as a young man who was flamboyantly and vivaciously open about his sexuality and could pick up any man he wanted, gay or straight, and enjoyed an incalculable number of partners during this era of free love. They all speak of him with uniform positivity.

The film rips open the narrative in which Dugas’ promiscuity was made notorious through the publication of the book And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts. Lynd’s subjects acknowledge the significance of Shilts’ book for calling out the government’s failure to act on the HIV/AIDS crisis, and for noting that thinly veiled homophobia was at the root of said failure, but the interviewees similarly hold Shilts accountable for mischaracterizing Dugas as a sort of “AIDS killer” who knowingly infected men across North America. Most effectively, Killing Patient Zero features some candid words from Michael Denneny, who edited and published And the Band Played On and admits that he extracted a minute detail from Shilts’ book and used it as publicity spin to attract media attention. Despite appearing in only 11 pages of And the Band Played On, Dugas life was stolen and re-framed with a pitch. The doc nevertheless unpacks the complexity of the falsehoods that compounded one another as misinformation spread while researchers tried to understand the virus in its early phases.

While the film deserves praise for connecting the misconceptions and complacency towards AIDS with vehement homophobia, audiences have seen that doc before. At the same time, the interviewees uniformly note the uncanny timing of the AIDS outbreak shortly after the victory for gay rights. Cultural critic B. Ruby Rich dubs the timing “Shakespearean” as it wiped out this newfound euphoria and the Reagan-era conservatism sweeping the nation treated AIDS like karmic retribution.

What Killing Patient Zero does especially well is contextualize the social movements that preceded the AIDS outbreak and inspired Dugas to live openly and fully. The interviewees of Killing Patient Zero share some wonderful and heartbreaking coming out stories and tales of finding relief in the ability to live without feeling like they’re hiding. There are open and candid discussions of sexuality—when’s the last time you heard people discuss “bottoming” and anal douches in a film?—to remedy the very kind of bashfulness that prevented a swift response to the AIDS outbreak.

Lynd draws an engaging cast of characters with notable figures from the queer community, including POV contributor Matt Hays and Canadian director John Greyson—who curiously doesn’t discuss his musical fantasia about Patient Zero despite wearing a Zero Patience t-shirt during his interview—to highlight a spectrum of stories. Fran Leibowitz’s sardonic and passionate soundbites easily make her the MVP of the talking heads, while Dugas’ close friends and colleagues arguably form the heart of the film.

Lynd steers karma back in Dugas’ favour as the story of Patient O comes full circle. The film sees doctors and researchers praise his openness and transparency with his sex life, and give him fair credit for setting foundational research on the virus into motion. The final images of Dugas are of a man who is happily in the prime of his life. The film sets Gaétan Dugas free.

Killing Patient Zero screens:
-Fri, Apr. 26 at 8:30 p.m. at TIFF Lightbox
-Sat, Apr. 27 at 12:30 p.m. at Cineplex Scotiabank
-Fri, May 3 at 2:45 p.m. at Hart House

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!

Hot Docs runs April 25 to May 5. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.