At first, the war on HIV was fought with fear: ”grim reaper” commercials, stern pamphlets and alarming TV reports.
But 25 years on, authorities are using very different weapons, including Facebook, stand-up comedians and an Oscar-winning actor, to tackle the epidemic.
The result is an educational web drama called Queer as F—, featuring Academy Award-winner Geoffrey Rush and comedians Judith Lucy, Denise Scott, Adam Richard and Andrea Powell, all of whom worked free.
The series, which made its debut last year on Facebook and YouTube and has already reached its fifth season, follows five gay men in a Melbourne share house.
NSW recorded a decline in the rate of HIV diagnosis last year, according to the Kirby Institute at the University of NSW’s 2011 Surveillance report. However, the report found that, despite safe sex generally among gay men, unprotected sex among casual partners was on the rise.
”Scare campaigns worked in the ’80s,” says Colin Batrouney, the lead writer and director of the series, who is also the health promotion manager of the Victorian AIDS Council.
”But we can’t just keep frightening people; we can’t just keep banging on about condoms and safe sex. That’s not going to cut it with today’s young men, which is why we had to be more clever in our approach.”
The series aims to bust the misconception that HIV affects only older men, as well as other myths, from the absurd (”You’re less likely to catch HIV if you have sex standing up”) to the surprisingly common (”If you’re the insertive partner, it’s safe to have unprotected sex”). Its characters use frank, explicit language, which has attracted complaints.
”Our response to those complaints is that we’re trying to reflect reality,” Batrouney says, ”and we want to stimulate discussion on our Facebook page. If we sanitise it and show only ‘good gay citizens’ doing the right thing, there’d be nothing to discuss except that it was completely unrealistic.
”People make mistakes. They drink, they smoke, they take drugs, they have unsafe sex. What we’re showing are working-class gay men who are not perfect.”
Indeed, the characters are a world away from the camp portrayals on most TV shows. ‘
”They’re just regular bogans,” Batrouney explains. ”The audience finds it refreshing to not see the witty, urbane characters they’ve already seen 1000 times over.”
Having addressed various sex and relationship issues in earlier seasons, the fifth also explores homophobia, opening with the aftermath of a vicious gay bashing. As the victim lies in hospital, his doctor father (Rush, in his debut in the series) and homophobic mother (Scott) argue over his comatose body.
”I loved having the chance to do comedy that dark,” Scott says. ”Of course, it has a very small budget. We often found ourselves in some windswept location, sitting in someone’s car and getting changed and putting our own make-up on.”
Her daughter is played by Lucy, who points out: ”Denise must have been 12 when she had me, because we’re not that far apart in age.
”What I like about the series is that it doesn’t go down the obvious path; it has a subtext and an important message, and it’s entertaining.
”People would just switch off if it didn’t have all that.”