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How To Tell a Secret ★★★★



Directors: Anna Rodgers & Shaun Dunne

Cast: Robbie Lawlor, Enda McGrattan, Michael Clancy

Release: BFI Flare 2023

For queer people, there can be a heightened sense of anxiety when disclosing personal information about us. We are programmed to conceal details needlessly, causing sickness within, where the ailment lurks into the broader world and the stigmas they have wrongfully attached.

To varying degrees, that remains the case when discussing those living with HIV and encouraging more rigorous discussion alongside education on sexual health. Creating a distinctive visual language as it incorporates elements of theatre, lip-syncing, and documentary footage, which is arresting in its sheer frankness. How To Tell a Secret is an enthralling delve into a modern queer Ireland looking to propel the narrative around HIV forward.

Drawing inspiration from a 2017 play called Rapids, there is a delicacy in its modern-day storytelling that is in startling contrast with the brutal barrage of 1980s television adverts our eyes are exposed to. Declared a gay plague at its global height, yet we discover today’s HIV rates in Ireland have never been higher. The message is clear; this deafening silence in status is all down to a society determined to silence them. As a result of directors Shaun Dunne and Anna Rodgers obscuring identities thoughtfully, their stories are finally granted a voice and receptive audience.

Deploying a skilful collective of actresses (Eva-Jane Gaffney/Jade Jordan/Lauren Larkin) entrusted with heart-swelling testimonies as they intensively workshop how to bring them to life. Not without their respective struggles. We have activist Robbie Lawlor and drag queen Lady Veda finally prepared to be more forward-facing about their experiences, enriching the film’s hybridised approach.

They imply that stories and lived experiences can move from body to body. Like a virus but instead positioning speaking up as a form of medicine. Its sense of urgency and empowerment through Dunne and Rodger’s experimentation is often palpable, befitting their goal to drastically change attitudes. The immediacy of theatre and the hard-hitting punch of documentaries bleed into each other, capturing the prolonged pain and emerging inner positivity of those on-screen artfully. Whether it is the freedom of expression of two women gracefully stretching their arms across a table and encouraging both sides of a subject not up for debate to meet in the middle, it is complemented by the consistent fourth wall breaking that serves as an emotionally charged plea to its audience, confronting them to do their soul-searching. It may be framed as ‘performance’, but the sheer honesty of these real-life accounts utterly compels you.

‘Secret blends two generations of tireless activism together through Lawlor and Veda. They are creating this potent synergy that reminds us that not disregarding the past can inform a brighter future. Lawlor’s loud and proud declaration on the Tommy Tiernan Show tells viewers of U=U (Undetectable = Untransmittable). Alongside Veda, honouring the legacy of street performer Thom McGinty AKA The Diceman, through their striking aesthetic as they continue to highlight LGBTQ+ issues in a very public, theatrical way. Yet the film’s highlighting of migrant women and the specificity in their stories talking about fears in pregnancy or the reaction of their children to this secret they’ve carried, with the emphasis on actresses delivering reports on behalf of these young men, may trigger the most significant shift in not confining how we discuss HIV as just a gay men issue.

Secrets can often be used as weapons against the queer community and epitomised by their final frames. How To Tell a Secret takes power back in an emphatic, thoughtful fashion, reminding us how impactful our words and truth can be.

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