What do you get when you gather six strangers with HIV who are taking protease inhibitors? Undetectable. The documentary, that is – not the people. Undetectable
is Boston filmmaker Jay Corcoran’s exploration of the hard truths of
the protease age. Corcoran, 39, has been following six men and women for
six months, recording their every step as they go on – and off –
protease inhibitors. His subject range from Matilda, a woman whose
husband and eight-year-old son also have HIV, to Belynda Dunn, program
manager of the Boston AIDS Action Committee.
After hearing about the grueling triple-drug therapy from a friend,
Corcoran saw past the media’s now familiar Lazarus-rising stories. He
placed an ad in the newspaper calling for PWAs who had just gone on
protease regimens and selected six people of varied race, sexuality and
gender to be in his film. Since he began the project, he’s seen the
pitfalls of protease. "A lot of them feel defeated. Getting better,
getting hopeful and then slipping – it’s a mindfuck," he says. "I’m
surprised more people aren’t talking about this. Watching what they’ve
gone through in just four months, there’s nothing else I’d want to do."
Thus far, the sic stars have run the gamut from dramatic highs to
precipitous declines once on drug cocktails. One subject, Peter, saw his
health improve, but the life he returned to was in a shambles. "He’s
getting back into his career, but he’s almost fifty and has no money
saved – for the last ten years, his job was staying alive," Corcoran
says. Belynda came down with a host of ailments after going on a
triple-drug cocktail and had to have her gall bladder removed. She has
since gone off protease inhibitors altogether. These discordant voices
might be too messy for the evening news, but they’ll be unmistakable in Undetectable.
Corcoran did not set out to document the age of AIDS. After moving to
New York City in 1984, he worked as an actor. Off-stage, he tooled
around with a video camera, and it changed his life. In 1994, he began
shooting Tom McBride, a former model in the late stages of AIDS. McBride
opened up to the camera about sex and the art of pursuit. "Then it just
snowballed," Corcoran says. He continued to film McBride until his
death in 1995.
The result was Life and Death on the A-List, a meditation on the culture of sex in gay life. After it screened at the New York Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in 1996, The New York Times
gave the film a glowing review and suddenly Corcoran was on the A-list
himself. Water Bearer Films snapped up the video distribution rights and
released it last September.
With the support of his partner, Mike Roberts, Corcoran is continuing to following his Undetectable
subjects while he drafts grant proposals to offset costs. Shooting
wraps up in June and he aims to have it ready for cable or public
television by fall 1998.
However the lives of his subjects play out over the next six months, Corcoran hopes that Undetectable will ignite the debate that A-List
has. A recent screening at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts inspired as
argument among audience members. "Some thought Tom was repellent,"
Corcoran recalls. "Others thought it addressed important issues. As I
listened to these people, I thought, ‘Yes!’ That’s the point of art – to
get people to think."
Erik Meers is a staff reporter for People.