Panic over HIV epidemic revisited in 1980s San Francisco

As many gay and lesbian couples prepare to wed this weekend, Test is a timely reminder of just how far things have come

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The Independent Culture

The early Eighties was rife with misinformation and superstition about the HIV epidemic which did much to undermine the burgeoning gay rights movement of the time.

This was a time when the disease was commonly referred to as the ‘gay cancer’ while some even believed it could be spread through contact on public transport or by sharing food.

In 1985, the first blood test for HIV was developed - undoubtedly a step forward, but one which brought its own challenges, not only in terms of how one would react to the result, but also in terms of the trust people needed to put in healthcare professionals at a time when some even advocated quarantining gay men.

Test, directed by Chris Mason Johnson, evokes the vibe of gay life in San Francisco during the Eighties, from the parties and the promiscuity to the everyday homophobia and fears over HIV.

The film centres on Frankie (Scott Marlowe), an understudy in a dance group hoping for his big break. His more timid nature is in contrast to that of his friend and fellow dancer Todd (Matthew Risch), whose reckless nature leads him to tally with prostitution and drug use.

We follow Frankie as he experiences the panic over the HIV epidemic of the time, with newspaper headlines and snatched moments of conversation (“Can you get it from sweating?”) all adding to the paranoia.

A public information advert indicating symptoms to look out for has Frankie worrying over innocent freckles, wondering if they may be a sign of the illness. He eventually decides to have a blood test, and we watch as Frankie waits an agonising two weeks for the results to come back.

The film works best as a period piece, recreating the era with a cool Eighties soundtrack and snippets of TV broadcasts that evoke the time, although clunky Walkmans and brick-sized telephone receivers with those oh-so-annoying tangled cords do scream of the film’s overzealous set designer.

The acting can be a bit hammy, with the exception of Matthew Risch, but my biggest gripe is that the film lingers too long on moody dance routines interspersed throughout the story, while the scenes set in the doctors’ surgery, on the streets or at parties are far more interesting.


However, the film pinpoints an important historical moment, and gives some sense of how bad even San Francisco could be for the gay community, less than 30 years ago.

And as we prepare to congratulate the many gay and lesbian couples due to get married this weekend, it’s timely to remember just how far we have come.

Test was shown as part of the BFI Flare London LGBT Film Festival and will be on general release in the UK from July 2014