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REVIEW | Bad Blood: Thom Fitzgerald’s “3 Needles”

REVIEW | Bad Blood: Thom Fitzgerald's "3 Needles"

Opening on World AIDS Day, Thom Fitzgerald‘s “3 Needles” sets itself up as a consciousness raiser from the get-go. Chronicling three stories built around the disease’s manifestations across geographic and cultural distances in just over two hours, no wonder the result is reductive–but still, you start off giving its good intentions the benefit of the doubt. It dutifully begins with a tale of villagers in rural China stricken by the epidemic after a woman (Lucy Liu) running a black market blood collection scam sets up shop in town. But you’d be mistaken in assuming this first episode–a clearly heartfelt illustration lacking in dramatic impetus and bearing a whiff of condescension–as emblematic of those to come; it gets much grimier than that.

The next installment, set in Montreal, finds a mother (Stockard Channing) actively seeking to contract HIV upon the discovery that her porn actor son (Shawn Ashmore) has been spreading the virus around. Failing to test positive after an unprotected tryst in a strip club with a man she spots in his support group meeting, she–wait for it–takes a hypodermic needle to the boy’s arm as he sleeps so she can inject herself with his blood. Oh, but first the devoutly Catholic woman arranges a two-million-dollar life insurance policy so she can defraud the company and live large off the proceeds generated by her prognosis.

By the time you get to the passage set in South Africa and witness Chloe Sevigny as Sister Clara trading favors with a local plantation owner in exchange for money to help her mission, you can’t help but question Fitzgerald’s motives. Why the focus on only the most sensationalistic stories to come out of the AIDS crisis? And why are women sexually humiliated in every episode? If his intent is to “shock” us out of complacency, then to what end? Underlying the filmmaker’s soap-operatic plotlines are various dubious assertions, including a suggestion that HIV/AIDS prevention remains a priority lest the afflicted–“unrecognizable” in their reckless lack of regard for others as evidenced in the many examples provided–further corrupt the population. And since its locales are so exotic as to remain remote from the daily lives of most of those with access to this movie, the film threatens to reify the disease as one tied only to specific groups of people rather than recognize it as an alarmingly close reality for everyone.

Even more problematic is the religious slant the writer-director applies. Dividing his chapters between Buddhists, Christians, and Pagans, he chooses to conclude with Olympia Dukakis‘s voiceover as a slain Sister: “In this time, when all of mankind has a common enemy in this virus, why have we not joined together at last in order to fight it? I’m afraid of the answer. It’s you, God. Or at least the different ways we believe in you.” And with those last words spoken by a supposed angel compounding a confusing sentiment which the director leaves none too complexly explored beforehand, a troubling missionary zeal resonates. No one could argue against greater collective action to end the proliferation of this deadly disease, but Fitzgerald’s film bespeaks a dodgy humanitarianism which demands scrutiny.

ABOUT THE WRITER: Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York’s Film Forum.

This Article is related to: Reviews



The reviewer Ms. Mitsuda is a well-spoken and provocative critic, so I’ll clarify some of the motivations under scrutiny.

Women experience sexual agression in each episode of “3 Needles” because sexual violence against women is a major– likely the most major force in the continued spread of the disease in most parts of the world. In South Africa, a Durban university study reports that approximately 54% of children in the northern rural areas are raped while pre-pubescent. There are an estimated 5 million rapes of women in South Africa each year, wih little or no consequence to the rapists. This is true in many other African and Asian territories as well. In the USA, there are straight men documented to have knowingly spread HIV to multiple (5, 10, 50) female partners in every state of the union. And as a result among South Africans young adults, there are three women with HIV for every man with HIV. The film acknowledges that the social status of women and children is a major factor in the spread of AIDS but also depicts female characters who are smart, strong, wiley and who take control over their own destinies. The violence is perhaps more disturbing because it happens almost entirely off-screen and stems from a widespread reality of violence, unlike violence as it is depicted in hundreds of box office smash American movies each year in which teenage girls are horrifically, graphically vivisected by serial killers for a cheap thrill.

A Canadian waitress may be exotic and remote to the reviewer to relate to, but that only indicates how narrowly our entertainment tends to be focused. I don’t think viewers will conclude that AIDS is only affecting Canadian waitresses. Her story underlines how different the experience of HIV is where people have money and health care versus where people don’t. In our society, where most people have access to drugs, where you can find ads for danceclub “poz parties” in major cities, HIV is constantly evolving from a death sentence to a manageable illness to a lifestyle.

The film’s exploration of the relationship between religion, cultural tradition and AIDS is on display from the first frame of the film to the last. It shows how ancient religious rituals involving circumcision have played a large role in spreading disease, how a Catholic novice struggles to balance her church’s stance on condom use with the harsh realities of sexualy transmitted disease around her.

I am not myself a missionary, and my main motivation in creating this film was to shed my own narrow perceptions of having grown up queer in New York, where I was taught at 14 that AIDS was God’s punishment against gays. I hope that people who see the film will momentarily shed their own emotional baggage and point of view. Because it’s so difficult for humankind to see beyond our own point of view. It’s important that we all realize that in our approach to AIDS prevention we who have the resources must incorporate the perspective of people in diferent cultures because what works for us doesn’t work for everyone. A condom won’t protect a teenage boy who is being circumcised with the same bloody machete as 90 boys in line before him. Choosing abstinence is not an option for an 8 year old girl. And faithfulness will not protect a wife who was raised from birth to never look a man directly in the eye, because she can’t know if he is being faithful. Of course, there are no correct answers regarding how to reconcile faith with a brutal pandemic… but essential that we recognize how our practices of faith– whether it be raping a virgin child in an effort to heal oneself, or the Bush administration’s insistence that abstinence be highlighted in any prevention strategy the U.S. funds– are feeding and fueling the spread of a fatal virus.

It is not a dubious assertion that HIV prevention and education remain a priority. In fact, in a world where the majority of people with HIV have no access to antiretroviral treatment and no hope of it any time soon, how can the reviewer argue that prevention is not a priority? Surely it is better to not get AIDS than to get it. I also used to believe that every person with AIDS is an innocent victim. But at this point, that would assert that rapists, liars and murderers are somehow immune to HIV. Malicious intent and sexual violence play a large role in the global pandemic.

My humanitarianism is dodgy indeed. I make movies for a living, and that’s about as shallow a career as one could choose (except, maybe, writing about movies?). But by heading out around the plane seeking stories of people changed by HIV, my intention was to share those stories. If seeing Chinese, Hill Tribe, Pondo, Xhosi, Afrikaans, and Anglo-Canadian and Franco-Canadian characters, speaking many different languages, makes the reviewer feel like HIV is specific rather than global, then I may have failed. If Montreal is too exotic a locale for her to relate to, then really only by making yet another film about AIDS in downtown New York City would be close enough to home. The extremely narrow limitation of her point of view also demands scrutiny. You shouldn’t have to live on the other side of the planet to take what happens there personally.

Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of the film, even if it didn’t sit entirely well with you.

-Thom Fitzgerald

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