Cinema Review: How To Tell a Secret

Posted November 30, 2022 in Cinema Reviews


Directors: Anna Rodgers & Shaun Dunne

Release Date: December 1

Anyone who knew Grafton Street in the 80s and 90s will remember the Diceman, a street artist and eventual queer icon who in 1994 went onto the Late Late Show to disclose that he was living with AIDS. His real name was Thom McGinty and his performances and sheer visibility did much to challenge misconceptions about HIV in Ireland. Then there’s drag artist Enda McGrattan/Veda who promised not to disclose their diagnosis, finally releasing a song about the experience years later.

In How To Tell A Secret, Veda pays homage to the Diceman on his home territory with a new placard: ‘Undetectable=Untransmittable’. As powerful an act as it is, it’s just one of the myriad versions of living with HIV offered by the hybrid doc. In its effort to build a community out of secrets, the outspoken and the silent are given equal screen time.

The film is an evolution of Shaun Dunne’s play Rapids, which delivered the stories of HIV+ people in an abstracted, anonymised way with a solid foundation of trust between subject and theatre makers. If the film version with co-director Anna Rogers adds anything, it’s the consciousness that secrecy is still a norm of HIV diagnosis but that that can change. Testimonies of disclosure are delivered sensitively by stand-in actors, on behalf of those too aware of prejudice to face a public who have proven unpredictable in the past. When others wish to speak for themselves, the camera lingers on hands, mouths and the backs of talking heads before revealing the speaker in full. We recognise this stylised secrecy well from media coverage of a disease still engrained with stigma, despite the reality of treatment, despite the efforts of ‘sufferers’ who do not suffer but live their lives with HIV, to fight off internalised shame they know they don’t deserve. 


The film workshops stories gifted by the HIV+ in an empty theatre, in particular those contributed by Irish and migrant women rarely associated with the illness. It leans into the idea of secrets as a virus which travels from body to body, and is at its strongest when the rhythms of theatre make intimate and empathetic the realities of Irish culture. When the original anonymous source of the stage work, ‘Aaron is just what we’re saying’, reappears in the film under his own name, we see the project come full circle, as proof that the HIV+ community is in flux and in the process of creating itself. The difference between secrecy and disclosure can be a few years, and a few more stories.

Words: Lucy Ann McCabe


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