When I think of a character being diagnosed with a terminal illness in a movie, especially HIV/AIDS, I think of sorrow. I expect to see the illness take center stage, to spend the rest of the film rooting for the victim to overcome whatever physical and personal obstacles lie ahead, and to weep when he or she finally passes (think Philadelphia, And the Band Played On, Rent, even Precious). Maybe it’s because HIV/AIDS has become such an epidemic within the black community, or because of the way it’s typically portrayed on film. But when I recently attended the NYADIFF screening of David is Dying, the second feature film by UK director Stephen Lloyd Jackson, it quickly became clear that this wasn’t going to be a typical HIV-themed film, and that David was definitely not a typical patient.
Anywhere I’d heard about the movie prior, it had basically been described as a tale about “a young, successful hedge fund manager in London whose world falls apart when he is diagnosed with HIV.” However, David’s diagnosis turns out not to be the focus of the film, but rather a device used to underscore his troubled relationship with his fiancée, Carla. Plagued by a twisted upbringing by his mother, David (Lonyo Engele) seeks as an adult to replace her with Carla and other women in his life – an impossible goal that leads only to promiscuity and pain. Controlling, self-absorbed, with rage always seeming to seethe beneath his surface, he’s hardly a sympathetic victim and early on makes two things clear – that he will die, and we may not feel sorry when he does.
The story is framed by a psychiatry session in which David explains his troubles. We shuttle back and forth in time with his narrative, between his childhood dealings with his mother and his on-off relationship with Carla. Here we see a cycle of dysfunction played out, literally, as both women are eerily played by Isaura Barbé-Brown. The engagement comes to a head when David has to tell Carla that he has passed the virus on to her, as well as their unborn child.
With a plot that could easily drift into melodrama, the film nevertheless maintains a tone of seriousness, anchored in strong performances by Engele and Barbé-Brown. Visually, Jackson uses variety to keep it interesting. In the Q&A after the screening, he explained that he’s heavily influenced by architecture, Greek drama, and classic films, which shows. Canted angles abound. We shift without warning from black and white to technicolor, from the real world to dream-like metaphors. In some moments we’re in David’s memory, focusing on the minutia of what he sees; at others we watch from a distance as his behavior spins out of control. It all gives a feeling of experimentation – that Jackson is developing a style and finding what works, which seems fine for a film like this, which centers on such a chaotic world.
It’s a dark and twisty story with a bleak message – that cycles of dysfunction can only create more dysfunction. And in the end it seems that David’s problems would have existed with or without his HIV. Jackson prefers it this way, as he refers to dark films as being more truthful than "fluffy endings." Whether or not you agree, you'll certainly find this an interesting watch. I’ve left a few key details out, as well as the ending, as you’ll want to discover them for yourself. Jackson explained that he’ll continue to tour with the film in different cities, followed by an eventual DVD release. Follow the film at davidisdying.com.
You can also catch more of the New York African Diaspora International Film Festival, which continues through December 13th at various locations in New York. For details and tickets, visit www.nyadiff.org.