'Killing Patient Zero': Film Review

A revealing cinematic exoneration.

Laurie Lynd's documentary tells the story of the man falsely accused of spreading AIDS in North America.

The title makes it sound like a Cold War spy thriller, but Laurie Lynd's documentary actually sets out to right a wrong. Killing Patient Zero rehabilitates the public image of Gaetan Dugas, the French-Canadian flight attendant widely known as the man almost single-handedly responsible for the AIDS epidemic. As the doc methodically illustrates, Dugas was an unfairly maligned, complex figure whose reputation was destroyed thanks to his notorious depiction in Randy Shilts' groundbreaking book And the Band Played On. The film, which recently received its world premiere at Toronto's Hot Docs festival, is a fascinating eye-opener.

Based on Richard McKay's non-fiction book Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic, the doc presents a deeply personal portrait of Dugas, featuring affectionate reminiscences from several of his friends, colleagues and lovers. Extremely handsome and wildly flamboyant, Dugas was unusual in that he made no effort to hide his homosexuality at a time when being gay was a stigma and, in many U.S. states, was a crime.

Dugas is lovingly described by those who knew him as charming and good-hearted, and also very promiscuous. His vocation enabled him to travel throughout America and allowed the opportunity for countless sexual liaisons. When the AIDS epidemic hit, he was eventually tracked down by the CDC after several of his lovers became infected with the virus.

Dugas refused to change his sexual behavior on the ground that no proof had yet been found that the disease was spreading by sexual contact. But he cooperated fully with the scientists investigating the epidemic, providing the names of his lovers (at least the ones he could remember) and even traveling to Atlanta at one point to give a blood sample. He was part of a "cluster study" tracing sexual contacts and labeled "Patient O," meaning "Out of California." But the O was mistaken for "Zero" at one point, giving the erroneous impression that Dugas was at the epicenter of the epidemic.

Shilts included a sensationalistic chapter about Dugas in And the Band Played On, which the book's editor, Michael Denneny, freely admits in the film was a hook to garner mainstream publicity. He leaked the excerpt to the famously right-wing New York Post, resulting in front-page coverage and the banner headline "The Man Who Gave Us AIDS."  "It was like cultural judo," Denneny comments, referring to his technique of using the paper's bias for his own ends.   

The doc puts all of this in historical context, to a slavish and sometimes excessive degree. It provides a mini-history of the gay rights movement, including such milestone as the Stonewall Riots and the sexual liberation of the 1970s. "We thought that sex was good for you, like kale," points out author Fran Lebowitz, one of the film's many onscreen commentators (and certainly the funniest). The film also recounts the story of the disease that was first described as "gay cancer" and ultimately claimed the lives of millions of people worldwide. We hear a horrifying audio clip from a press conference in which Ronald Reagan's press secretary Larry Speakes responds to a reporter's queries about the health crisis by making callous jokes.

Although Killing Patient Zero clearly sets out to clean up Dugas' reputation, it also presents a complex portrait of a man whose behavior was self-destructive and dangerous. One of the most fascinating segments features archival footage from a Vancouver public forum in which Dugas forcefully pushes back against the idea that gay men should practice safe sex.

That Dugas couldn't possibly have infected all the men with whom he came into contact is forcefully argued by a scientist who points out that the infection has a 10-year latency period and that Dugas is a "classic scapegoat." The man known as "Patient Zero" himself died from AIDS in 1984 at age 31. As the film makes clear, he didn't cause the epidemic, he was merely one of its victims.

Production company: Fadoo Productions
Director-screenwriter: Laurie Lynd
Producer: Corey Russell
Director of photography: Paul Steinberg
Editor: Trevor Ambrose
Venue: Hot Docs

100 minutes