"A while ago I tested positive for the HIV virus, and my doctor told me this means the chances are very strong I'll get AIDS in the years ahead. I was confused because nothing had changed, yet everything had changed. I decided to make a film about it."—Peter Adair
That filmmaker Peter Adair is no longer with us—he died in 1996—is a sad footnote to his wonderful 1991 documentary about the human realities of the virus that claimed his life. Absolutely Positive brings us face-to-face with 11 HIV-positive individuals (an even dozen if we count Adair himself, which we should): Peter Canavan, Greg Cassin, Johnnie Norway, Marlon Riggs, and Eric Sawyer are gay men of various ages and backgrounds; Mary Corwin, Alice Terson, and Doris Butler are former intravenous drug-users; Delmar and Margery Middleton are a retirement-aged couple who contracted the disease when Delmar had a blood transfusion; and Juan Alejandro was blindsided by HIV when he tested positive after his young wife died suddenly. The movie draws its power from a deceptively simple form that puts us face to face with each of these people as they tell their stories. Adair's skillful editing adds complexity to the piece and increases its emotional and thematic power. He cuts between the participants' stories in a way that draws parallels, revealing HIV as a social health problem without dampening the central truth that the real tragedy of the virus is its cost in unique, individual lives.
When Absolutely Positive was completed 13 years ago (I can't figure out why this DVD is labeled the 10th Anniversary Edition), it was important because there was still an air of mystery about HIV, and a veil of fear that prevented us from fully recognizing the suffering of those infected. Adair's work helped put a face on the virus' victims. The film takes on a different kind of relevance today. As HIV/AIDS education has given the public a clearer understanding of how the virus is spread, baroque cocktails of virus-suppressing drugs have greatly increased the life expectancy of those infected, and blind fear has largely dissipated, we've ironically lost sight of the real cost of the virus in human lives. For those of us not faced day in and day out with its grim realities, it's easy to reduce HIV to a political issue, a ribbon worn at awards banquets, a pet project that needs to be funded, or a collection of not-for-profit charities. Absolutely Positive is a simple little film with the power to right our perspectives, to remind us that HIV is about the suffering and death of individuals.
Docurama's done a solid job bringing Absolutely Positive to DVD, delivering a disc with a decent presentation of the feature as well as a meaningful array of extras. The film itself is presented in its original full screen aspect ratio with a Dolby Stereo soundtrack. Flaws in the image appear source-based. Technical information I was able to dig up about the film indicates it was printed to 16mm, but it looks like it was either shot or edited on video (it's loaded with the mosaic dissolves and other cheesy effects one associates with the likes of corporate training videos). The image itself is mostly sharp, but there are instances of instability and some faded colors. The audio is similarly worn, displaying a narrow dynamic range and lots of hiss. Investing some cash in audio restoration could probably have eliminated the hiss, but the end product wouldn't have been any more dynamic, and every word of the participants' stories is discernible as is, so there's no reason to nit-pick.
Extras include a 15-minute interview with Adair that appears to have been shot around the time of Absolutely Positive's completion. It's a touching piece in which Adair talks about his history as a documentary filmmaker, what Absolutely Positive means to him, and how he wishes to be remembered in the event AIDS takes his life. Peter Adair: Filmmaker, Artist, Storyteller is a 13-minute short film produced nearer to the end of his life. The centerpiece is a sit-down interview with Adair, but the film also offers clips from his films Holy Ghost People, Word Is Out, and Absolutely Positive, as well as discussion of his transition into multimedia experiments during the years prior to his death.
The disc also offers brief text-based updates on each of the feature's participants. It's a feature that's both heartbreaking and uplifting as about half of the group has passed away (interestingly, the majority of those who died did so within five years of the film's completion, and some of those remaining have had little or nothing in the way of AIDS-related symptoms).
Absolutely Positive is an example of the power of simplicity. It's a collection of human stories, full of joy and pain, humor and sadness, tragedy and triumph. It's recommended viewing.
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Scales of Justice
• Featurette: Peter Adair: Filmmaker, Artist, Storyteller
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