Controversial HIV film takes award at New York film festival

Gary Hart March 25, 2017

The HIV/AIDS documentary film Positive Hell added a new trophy to its collection of film festival awards last weekend receiving the Special Jury Prize for World Social Impact at the Queens World Film Festival (QWFF).

The award was presented to the film’s writer, narrator and producer Joan Shenton by festival co-directors Katha Cato and Donald Cato. The award came at the end of an important week for Positive Hell, which in 2016 was barred from two London film festivals and a New York screening, following behind the scenes lobbying.

Joan Shenton and Katha Cato
Joan Shenton and Katha Cato

The film’s producer Joan Shenton, said: “On Wednesday, we were pleased to see Positive Hell open the LGBTQ+ section of the Queens World Film Festival. The film tells a story of huge importance to the LGBTQ community and we were delighted not just at the size of the audience, the acclaim or the opportunity for this audience to see the film, but because of an unanticipated moment after the screening.

Then on Thursday, using YouTube, we released our new short film, Censored, which tells the story of how behind-the-scenes intimidation, with threats of boycotts and mass demonstrations, had led to three separate 2016 bans on Positive Hell, something we regarded not only as obvious censorship but little short of corporate terrorism.

Last Saturday, thanks to community activists in Harlem and Jackson Heights, Positive Hell was given two more screenings, with renowned journalist and AIDS writer, Celia Farber taking questions. Both events received threats and dire warnings that the film was too dangerous to screen but this time our hosts held their ground.

So three screenings took place in New York last week, all followed by constructive debates, and not a single demonstrator turned up to any of them, confirming our belief that the bullying and intimidation was simply a PR exercise: empty threats engineered by corporate pharmaceutical interests that didn’t like the ideas expressed in Positive Hell.”

Positive Hell tells the personal stories of five people who have lived by choice for decades without antiretroviral drug regimes, despite having all been diagnosed HIV positive in the 1980s and despite receiving grave warnings about the impact on their health. Thirty years after making those choices, all five were still very much alive, ready to tell their stories on camera and discuss their doubts about the medical advice they had received.

Ms Shenton continued: “After the QWFF screening, a member of the audience unexpectedly stood up and declared that, like the people in our film, he had been diagnosed HIV positive 27 years ago and, like them, he had rejected medical advice to take antiretrovirals and was still there to talk about it. He expressed his gratitude to those who, like him, question this medical orthodoxy. It was a poignant moment.”

She concluded: “Positive Hell has been selected for further film festivals this summer and ‘Censored’ is now out on YouTube as the first in a trilogy titled ‘Positively Wrong’, with the next film to follow soon. Meanwhile, the director of Positive Hell, Andi Reiss, and I and all the film’s team are immensely grateful to Katha Cato, Donald Cato and the Queens World Film Festival for recognising the importance of Positive Hell with their festival selection, topped by an award that means a great deal to us.

“We are also grateful to Elizabeth Ely who set up Saturday’s screenings and Rolando Bini, President of the Family Preservation Committee at the National Action Network – House of Justice in Harlem and director of Parents in Action in Jackson Heights, for sticking to his guns and ensuring that people directly and indirectly affected by HIV/AIDS were able to see our work for themselves and debate its message.”

Censorship of Positive Hell in London is currently being investigated by Index on Censorship, which is expected to report soon.

Festival Award for Best LGBTQ film went to Mariposas (Butterflies) by Angel Villaverde with To have you here by Jen Ackerman receiving an honorable mention.