The main event

We're still dying, even in the 'post-AIDS era'

“I had a movie studio executive ask me, ‘Why would you want to make an AIDS movie in the post-AIDS era?'” says Thom Fitzgerald, recounting the resistance he met when fundraising for his latest film, The Event. “The subject matter scared off a lot of the usual sources of funding,” says the director of The Hanging Garden and Beefcake, on the phone from his adopted home of Halifax.

Sadly, that’s not too surprising, considering the subject matter of The Event is the assisted suicide of a 30-something gay man with AIDS, and its repercussions on the family and friends left behind. Perhaps not the first choice for date night entertainment, but it’s a subject that Fitzgerald feels is widely known about and quietly practised, though virtually never discussed because assisted suicide remains illegal in North America. And that, says the filmmaker, “makes people vulnerable when they share their feelings or experiences about it.”

At the centre of The Event is Matt (Toronto actor Don McKellar), who, as the film opens, is being placed into a body bag and removed from his Chelsea apartment, to the bouncy strains of “Spirit In The Sky.” In the flashbacks that make up the bulk of the film, we learn that Matt has AIDS and the drug cocktails he’s been taking stopped working. Feeling his health and independence slipping away, he decides to take the future into his own hands and end his life. Supported by family and friends, including his mother Lila (Olympia Dukakis) and sister Dana (Sarah Polley), Matt hosts “the event,” a boisterous farewell bash, complete with drag queens and party favours, that allows everyone to celebrate his life and say their good-byes.

The problem is, several other gay men have died under similar circumstances, which catches the attention of the New York District Attorney’s office, specifically attorney Nicole “Nick” Devivo (Parker Posey), who’s assigned to investigate what part Matt’s loved ones played in his demise.

What she discovers, with the help of Matt’s disapproving other sister (Joanna P Adler), not only causes Nick to question her beliefs about assisted suicide but also dredges up memories of her own father’s recent, painful death.

Fitzgerald, who co-wrote the screenplay with long-time friends Tim Marback and Steven Hillyer, was drawn to the project because “the story was very close to my heart,” he says. “I thought the film could also do a service to the people who see it.” That’s been the case so far. The Event has hit home with diverse audiences, and Fitzgerald has been moved by the response. “The film has been much more cathartic for people than I’d ever anticipated. An entire audience has the chance to get some stuff off their chests.”

His favourite reception was in Utah, where the audience was primarily mature, heterosexual Mormons who, he recalls, “were standing up and shouting that they were going to write their congressman” about the injustice of assisted suicide still being illegal. “I think the greatest achievement a film can have is to show a viewer somebody else’s world and allow them to empathize.”


Despite the heavy subject matter, The Event is lightened by humorous scenes that reflect Matt’s approach to life. Whether it be Lila baking him pot cookies, or Matt inviting his friends to claim his possessions by sticking name tags on them, Fitzgerald is careful to avoid anointing his characters as saints. They’re flawed, funny and as fucked up as the rest of us, and are embodied by an ensemble of actors that had their own connection to the story.

Although he feels, “lucky” to have rounded up a stellar cast that, in addition to Posey, Polley and Dukakis, includes Brent Carver as Matt’s best friend Brian, and Frasier’s Jane Leeves as a lesbian therapist with issues of her own, Fitzgerald says “everybody involved in making the film dedicated themselves to the project in honour of somebody that they knew and loved who had faced the same situation.” Dukakis in particular, he recalls “has spoken openly about someone that she loved who suffered.”

Her finely-calibrated performance, as Matt’s devastated but fiercely supportive mother Lila, is the crux of the film. “She’s the most meticulous actor I’ve ever worked with.” Says Fitzgerald. Dedicated and focussed, with a binder full of notes and lists, “she prepares in a way that I was taken aback by.” The preparation paid off as Dukakis gives one of the strongest performances of her impressive career, which includes roles in Steel Magnolias, an Academy Award for Moonstruck and her turn as the fabulous transsexual Anna Madrigal in the Tales Of The City series. Lila’s restrained anguish in a pivotal scene at Matt’s bedside is the most heartbreaking example of maternal courage on film since Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice.

Fitzgerald sees The Event as part of a logical evolution in the examination of AIDS in cinema, following in the tradition of seminal films like Parting Glances, Longtime Companion and Philadelphia, by offering what he calls, “a reflection of where the community is living with AIDS now.

“As the epidemic evolves,” he says, “so does our perception, and the art that we make about it.” Whereas early films about AIDS focussed on the ravages of the disease and the long, inevitable good-byes of those suffering from it, Fitzgerald says that today the disease engenders other complications. “In the age of life-prolonging medications, people are on a very regular basis facing the issue that Matt faces,” he says. “I don’t think that has been cinematically exhausted at all.”

Even though the disease depicted in the film could have been terminal cancer, for example (“Believe me, there were offers of financing if we changed the disease,” says Fitzgerald wryly), the director stood by the choice of AIDS partly as a personal choice, but also because, he says “it served another purpose – to prod people and remind them that this epidemic is ongoing.”

Filmed in early 2002, The Event was the first feature to shoot in New York City after the World Trade Center attacks on Sep 11, an event of a different magnitude, whose impact subtly permeates the film. Surprisingly, the director encountered no problems while shooting, despite the fact that his primary location was only four blocks from Ground Zero. “It was the opposite of what you might expect,” he recalls. “The city was extraordinarily welcoming and bent over backwards to support us.”

The film’s chronology covers a year, including Sep 11, and references to the tragedy are woven into the story. Born and raised in the US, Fitzgerald, whose aunt worked in the WTC (she escaped, although some of her co-workers didn’t) and whose brother witnessed the towers collapse, decided against altering the time-frame, reasoning that “because of what the characters in the film are going through, the idea of tragedy surrounding them was a natural fit.” The decision was a sound one, as shots of US flags flying outside a firehouse, the re-written Manhattan skyline and, particularly, Lila and Dana distributing AIDS literature near Ground Zero, underscore the film’s theme of death as a catalyst for reflection, growth and courage.

Fitzgerald is working on his next film, Three Needles, which again deals with AIDS, this time from a global perspective, with stories set in Los Angeles, China, Africa and Nova Scotia. In keeping with his desire that The Event affect audiences by allowing them to speak more openly about assisted suicide, he hopes that Three Needles will encourage discussion around the global impact of AIDS and his thesis that, “rather than the epidemic bringing people together as it should, it seems to be dividing us more.” Remarkably topical and important material for the “post-AIDS era,” don’t you think?

* The Event screens at 9:45pm on Fri, Sep 5 and 9:15am on Sun, Sep 7 at the Varsity.

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Culture, TV & Film, Arts, Toronto

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