How to Tell a Secret gives a voice to those in Ireland living with HIV, with its urgent tone given ample reinforcement by its basis of pride and bravery.
Constructed from and inspired by Shaun Dunne’s play “Rapids”, How to Tell a Secret focusses on the shame that still surrounds HIV in Ireland today. It is a stigma that still forces many people into secrecy and directly influences both the play and film’s structures, with many real stories being told through actors. Around six years on from the play’s first performance, How to Tell a Secret positively highlights shifting attitudes from people living with HIV and society – perhaps most clearly via one man, who in the play was anonymous, but in the film speaks out publicly. Through the power of advocacy and pride, How to Tell a Secret acts as a hugely educational, deeply important film firmly rooted in the present.
For an illness that can be easy to live with – it is easier to live with than diabetes – there is still a staggeringly dangerous narrative surrounding HIV. How to Tell a Secret acts as a broader tool to break down this stigma, keenly noting the fact that drug therapy renders the virus impossible to transmit. More specifically, it gives a voice to those people living with this illness. The transition from stage to screen is not always seamless, but Dunne and Anna Rodgers’ – here on co-writing and co-directing duties – stripped-back style gives these underheard voices a strong platform to speak from. Despite its far-reaching messages, How to Tell a Secret operates with a very personal, emotional core.
Dunne and Rodgers’ documentary handles these notions of advocacy, stigma and secrecy with impressive grace, although the film’s wordy nature can occasionally stunt its energy. There are moments of visual inventiveness which inject a freshness, but these are too few and far between. The mixture of reenactments and readings give How to Tell a Secret an uneven feel, although this is an almost inevitable consequence of the enforced combination of real people and actors. If one woman can’t tell her dad about her illness, for example, she can’t be expected to openly tell the world. The acting within these scenes can also feel melodramatic, although never cloying. In general, How to Tell a Secret’s structure is, whilst uneven, further proof of the continued stigma surrounding HIV.
Despite the documentary’s focus on Thom McGinty aka The Diceman, who was one of the first people to speak openly about having HIV in Ireland, How to Tell a Secret is firmly rooted in the present. It draws from these decades-old stories and people of the past with respect, and acknowledges their influence on society now. We hear the inspirational stories of people now such as Lady Veda and Robbie Lawlor, or from the aforementioned man who, in “Rapids”, remained offstage and whose story was portrayed by actors. At the end of How to Tell a Secret, he is proud to speak publicly about his HIV diagnosis, reflecting the full-circle journey of so many people in Ireland. It is a journey that, via ways such as this documentary, can become reality for many more.
How to Tell a Secret touches on the possible reasons behind continued stigma – for example, the media using damaging language and hurtful narratives – but it remains focussed on the people living with HIV. Ireland, like so many other countries around the world, marks HIV out as an epidemic of silence. It is a country that has one of the highest rates of diagnoses in Europe, with Lawlor putting this down to lack of education. Perhaps most importantly, How to Tell a Secret gives no right way to live with HIV, simply offering the vital allyship of others to those living with the illness, alongside the need for further education and eventual deconstruction of its stigma.
How to Tell a Secret was screened at the 2023 BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival on 24-26 March, and will be released in UK cinemas on December 1, 2023. Read our BFI Flare reviews!