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    Documentary Profiles Quiet Heroes of the Early HIV/AIDS Epidemic in Utah

    By Gary M. Kramer–

    The many documentaries about the AIDS crisis have chronicled stories both personal and universal. The honorable and inspiring new film, Quiet Heroes, which is having its World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this week, tells the story of Dr. Kristen Ries and Maggie Snyder, her Physician’s Assistant, who ran the only practice to care for HIV/AIDS patients in Utah.

    The film, directed by Jenny Mackenzie and co-directed and produced by Jared Ruga and Amanda Stoddard, is conventionally made, with talking head interviews, photographs, news reports, and home movie footage. The film also traverses familiar territory when it discusses the shame and stigma HIV/AIDS patients face (especially during the early years of the epidemic), and how life expectancies for patients changed as AZT and cocktails were able to treat the disease.

    Where Quiet Heroes excels is in the personal stories that put a face on both the doctors and their patients. Dr. Ries eloquently explains why and how she became interested in infectious diseases and was willing to take on HIV/AIDS patients, especially when the Utah Department of Health refused to treat the many people who were suffering.

    The film also shows how Maggie Snyder provided support for both Dr. Ries and patients, giving them the respect they deserved. Ries recounts losing many patients who felt uncomfortable being treated by the “AIDS doctor.” She jokes that her practice consisted of “gays and grays” because her patients either had HIV or were elderly. The two women eventually became a couple themselves, lending additional support to LGBT causes, if not visibility.

    An interesting observation in the film is how Ries and Snyder—again the only medical team treating HIV/AIDS cases—would not acknowledge patients in public unless cued, so as not to reveal their medical status. In addition, they had a back door to their office for patients to use to avoid being identified. These points indicate just how great the fear and disdain were for HIV/AIDS patients in particular and the LGBT community at large in Salt Lake City, a region not generally associated with the AIDS crisis.

    Quiet Heroes addresses this point in more depth as it describes the Mormons’ attitudes toward homosexuality. The Church of Latter Day Saints believes that couples married on Earth are also connected in the hereafter. As such, homosexuality is not tolerated because of how the Mormons consider the family in the afterlife. One interviewee describes how mothers often abandoned their LGBT kids because of Mormon teachings about homosexuality being a sin, forcing these mothers to choose between God and family.

    The film then introduces a Mormon couple, Kim and Steve Smith, who get married and have two children. The couple faces a crisis when Steve acts on his same-sex desires and eventually transmits HIV to Kim. How she handles this situation (with Dr. Ries and Maggie Snyder’s help) is both poignant and moving.

    Another “hero” in the film is a woman named Cindy. Although she lost her battle with HIV/AIDS, before she died, Cindy fought to change laws that prevented people with HIV/AIDS from getting married. Cindy sued to wed her husband, showing just how the epidemic made accidental activists out of ordinary citizens. Cindy’s openly gay daughter recounts her mother’s achievements in the film, indicating how her mother’s activism was passed along.

    Quiet Heroes raises other key points, such as how HIV/AIDS patients think about themselves in negative ways. It is powerful to hear Dr. Reis and Maggie Snyder recall the many gay men who felt they “deserved” the disease.

    The film also includes some upbeat stories. Peter Christie, a Director of Education at Ballet West in Salt Lake City, is a patient of Dr. Ries’ who was on the brink of death with 60 T-cells before cocktails helped to prolong his life. As Dr. Ries and Maggie Snyder explain in one of the more fascinating revelations in the film, they often redistributed HIV/AIDS drugs collected from deceased patients. This practice was illegal, but they insisted they felt the good it would do—assisting folks who had financial hardships when it came to health care—was worth the risk of prison and/or losing their medical licenses.

    The film only briefly touches on the expenses HIV/AIDS patients incur and how great a financial hardship it can be for folks too sick to work and without medical care. It may be a function of the 69-minute running time that the film fails to explore this or some of the other topics raised in greater detail. Nevertheless, it is important to be aware of these individuals and the situations they faced. In this regard, Quiet Heroes does justice to its subjects.

    © 2018 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer