1985, Yen Tan, short, film, movie, HIV, AIDS, HIV/AIDS

“1985” Proves That Films About AIDS/HIV Can Still Surprise Us

Yen Tan, gay, director, Ciao, Pit Stop, The Outfit, 1985
Director Yen Tan

UPDATE (July 11, 2016): You can now watch the entirety of this nine-minute masterpiece for free online above or at this link.

Most films about HIV are predictably depressing: Longtime Companion and The Lonely Heart have supporting actors dying left and right, Philadelphia depicts its protagonist as getting progressively sicker until the film’s tear-jerking conclusion and even the comedy Jeffrey has an adorable main character die in the third act. So when we heard that openly gay Texan director Yen Tan (director of the understated gay feature-length dramas Ciao and Pit Stop) had directed 1985, a short about an HIV-positive man visiting his mother for possibly the last time, we thought, “Another AIDS tear-jerker??! Ugh. Pass.”

We’ve never been more wrong about a film in our entire lives.

1985 isn’t your standard AIDS heart-breaker; it doesn’t spoon-feed messages about treating sick people with dignity and respect. It’s 2016 after all, and though HIV-stigma (and deaths) still surround us, many of our poz friends aren’t on their way to the graveyard; they’re on their way to brunch. So what could a film about AIDS and HIV possibly teach us 15 years after the epidemic’s zenith? A lot, it turns out…

The film, which takes places in 1985 (duh), follows Adrian, a man dying of AIDS, as he prepares to move in with his estranged mother. The opening shots show his empty apartment, cardboard boxes in the cold daylight, a photograph of his deceased lover and an eventual shot of Adrian’s face covered in purple lesions — depressing, right?

But immediately after this, the film takes an unexpected turn when a cosmetologist named Tammy Garland rings Adrian’s doorbell. Adrian reveals that he’d like to cover up his lesions for when he first meets his mom. One could read this as shame: in 1985, over 12,529 people had died of AIDS (Rock Hudson among them); Ryan White, a 13-year-old student with hemophiliac had been kicked out of school for being HIV-positive and the Department of Defense pledged to reject any new recruits that tested pos.

However, Adrian isn’t merely trying to hide from shame. Rather, the film shows him reclaiming his own dignity — saving “face”, as it were — by refusing to present himself as a sickly “AIDS victim” and choosing to reveal his secret on his own terms. His lesions become a symbol for any secret, and his brief encounter with Tammy proves surprisingly moving even though the film is barely nine minutes long.

Yen Tan, movies, films, gay, Ciao, Pit Stop, The Outfit
The posters for Tan’s other films: Ciao (2008), Pit Stop (2013) and The Outfit (2015).

We talked with the director about why he chose to make “an AIDS film” and the sorts of work he’d like to make next…

Unicorn Booty: Why did you choose to revisit the AIDS epidemic? Hasn’t that era already been thoroughly depicted in gay media? 

Yen Tan: I feel strongly that there’s still a lot of forgotten stories in that era that haven’t been told. In some ways we have taken this history for granted, not realizing that so much of the progress and equality we have today is made possible by the fervent activism that occurred back then. What is interesting for me now is being able to reexamine the past with a degree of foresight. We have come such a long way, and that’s amazing, but it’s important to remember our forefathers and the price they paid for it.

Why do you tend to set your films in Texas? How do you feel about the fact that countless LGBT films take place in New York, San Francisco or L.A.?

It’s cause I’m in Texas! It’s much easier to make something locally since I live here, too. I don’t have any feelings about LGBT films that are set in the obvious places. As long as it’s a good story, who cares?

An gay-friendly ally plays key role in 1985. While LGB people and allies these days may be okay with same-sex marriage, they’re not always okay with trans rights or racial issues. What does it mean to be a true LGBT ally these days?

For me, a true ally is one who is always receptive to changes and committed to inclusivity.

If you could make a film about any topic or era, what might you explore and why? How might your upcoming work differ from Ciao, Pit Stop and your other films?

I tend to make films that directly or indirectly explore something I’m experiencing in my life. “1985” came about because I was having a tough time creatively, and I remembered this story I heard more than 15 years ago that now resonates differently with me. Every film I’ve made so far all comes from that place of reflecting something I’m going through.

You tried comedy in “The Outfit” (a short that winks at the rumored homosexuality of disgraced ex-congressman Aaron Schock). Have you ever considered shooting a full-length comedy or horror film? Why or why not? If you did, what might that look like?

Yes. Absolutely. If it’s about something I can relate to personally, the genre is secondary.

(story originally published on April 23, 2016)