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Pushing Dead
Pushing DeadCourtesy of the film

Can comedy help erase the stigma of HIV?

Tom E. Brown’s new film, Pushing Dead, attempts to make light of his personal experience with the virus

In the late 80s, during the midst of an AIDS epidemic that would claim the lives of tens of thousands of men and women by the end of the decade, Tom E. Brown – then aged 18 – was diagnosed with HIV.

Around the same time, in March 1987, the FDA approved a drug called azidothymidine (known more commonly as AZT). It was heralded as the first potential cure for a health crisis that was rapidly spiralling out of control. Despite severe side effects, including chronic headaches, nausea and debilitating muscle fatigue, demand for the drug surged. One of the shortest approval cycles in pharmaceutical history, coupled with a potentially fatal 1,500 mg dosage, meant that that for close to a decade desperate AIDS victims were taking toxic levels of a drug that caused damage to their bone marrow and immune systems, crossing the blood-brain barrier, and heightening their risk of dementia.

Film, fiction and documentary – particularly narratives told from the perspective of those who lived through the worst of the crisis – would often end up exploring these stories of decline and struggle. For Brown, though, they never quite went far enough. His first feature film, Pushing Dead, is a touching comedy about the challenges of living with HIV. Following Dan, a struggling writer who’s been HIV positive for 20+ years, the film recontextualizes a life spent living with AIDS as a moving, light-hearted journey of acceptance. “It’s a love story between a man and his disease,” the director explains. “I didn’t want to write a film about someone’s decline, but about living. I really see it as a love story for Dan, about how he learns to finally settle into a comfortable relationship with his HIV.”

We sat down with Brown after two sell-out screenings at the BFI’s Flare Festival to discuss his diagnosis, and what it feels like to finally reach a “moment in time where you’re comfortable enough to tell everyone” about your illness.

Your early work, including shorts like Don’t Run, Johnny, is known for taking a comical look at HIV and AIDS. How did the idea for Pushing Dead develop?

Tom E. Brown: I must have written the first few pages back in 2000. Shortly after I screened Don’t Run, Johnny at Sundance in 1998, I remember a very nice woman from the institute kept calling a couple of times a year, asking if I was working on a feature film. At some point, I realised they’re going to stop calling me, so I sat down and wrote the full feature pretty quickly. By the time I got round to it, I think I had about 35 days until the final deadline. I would recite it to myself every night, and then carry on writing the next day.

“I’d make the worst serious films. Life is kind of goofy, so it’s easy for me to make something into a comedy” – Tom E. Brown

Having to write the entire feature in just over a month, did you end up drawing a lot from your own experiences?

Tom E. Brown: I probably share an equal number of experiences in the film with those characters who are positive and those characters who aren’t. I did accidentally double dose once, so when Dan mistakenly takes his pills twice and goes into a bit of a panic, that was inspired by something I went through. The scene where Paula was pelted with D batteries, that was also something that happened to me!

Why did you want to use comedy to talk about HIV?

Tom E. Brown: It’s really hard for me to write without including funny stuff. I’d make the worst serious films. Life is kind of goofy, so it’s easy for me to make something into a comedy. I definitely wanted to keep it vaguely in the boundaries of reality, only occasionally stepping over the fence every now and then.

Framing it as a comedy seems to make people feel more comfortable about confronting their own prejudices surrounding HIV. A close friend of mine dated an older guy who he knew was positive, and my first reaction was “that’s not safe, that’s not a good idea.” This film helped me confront that bias.

Tom E. Brown: I think I would have done the same thing you did, even today. I would say “Oh, I don’t know, I’m not sure about that…” because I do that with myself. That was one of the reasons why – when I was thinking about having a kid on my own, or when I think about my godson – I can get very worried about having somebody attached or dependent on me. You think, “What happens if something happens to me?” and then you realise that’s ridiculous.

Is that something you still think about?

Tom E. Brown: I do, but not so much anymore. Even though I’m somewhat educated about what it takes to spread HIV, you still have those thoughts that go against logic. You think of yourself as poison. But I don’t think viewers should feel bad about having the kinds of feelings you mentioned, they make total sense to me.

Do you think the stigma around HIV is disappearing?

Tom E. Brown: I think it’s still there. I don’t know if it’s got better or worse. I think perhaps it’s got better, so much time has passed since the 80s. So many people are on PrEP now, there’s so much more freedom and in a way that’s crazy to me! I would love not to have to pop the pills and just make sure I’m safer with my actions. I tested positive in 1985, if I think about it compared to then, it’s got much better. Having said that, there’s still this sense of hierarchy within the AIDS community.

You mean there’s superiority from people who’ve lived with HIV for longer? Who’ve had to deal with it for some time?

Tom E. Brown: It works both ways. Sometimes newly positive people don’t want to get involved with people who’ve had AIDS for a long time, but others might think of themselves as veterans – they might not want to go on that journey again with someone who’s newly positive.

“When you’re with someone who’s negative, you’re reminded of how you felt when you first tested positive. You feel like a poisoned needle” – Tom E. Brown

In Pushing Dead, Dan’s love interest is also positive. How does this affect the relationship?

Tom E. Brown: People who are not positive, or not near that world, they find the hierarchy fascinating. I would certainly rather my partner was negative – of course, you want them to be as healthy as possible – but, if they are positive, sometimes that makes it easier. When you’re with someone who’s negative, you’re reminded of how you felt when you first tested positive. You feel like a poisoned needle. I hope the film goes some way to revealing the world of HIV for someone who’s not close to it, who doesn’t have a reference point for it. That’s the weird thing, I have these conversations where I’m trying to talk sense into people, get them to think about how they treat someone with HIV but at the same time, especially in the early days, I would have moments with my godson where you get a tiny cut on your finger and you think “OH NO!! I’m a ticking time bomb here!” It’s hard to suppress.

You’ve talked previously about being in denial when you first found out you’d contracted HIV, and how that may have ended up saving your life.

Tom E. Brown: It definitely saved my life, there’s no doubt in my mind. Had I gone to my doctor sooner I absolutely would have received the toxic dose of AZT. That was killing people, they didn’t realise it, they assumed dementia was a symptom of the illness, but they were scrambling and those levels of AZT were killing people. It was a little terrifying back then, nobody knew how to protect themselves. Everybody was guessing.

What do you have planned next for your next project?

Tom E. Brown: We still have a few more festivals with this one, and then on to distribution. I do have a new project about my neighbourhood called Tenderloin. It'll be another feature, or possibly a TV pilot. It's in the same world as Pushing Dead, but more gritty and a little funnier.

Pushing Dead plays at the Newport and Florida Film Festivals this month, with more screenings planned throughout the US and Europe throughout the year.