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'Living Proof: HIV and the Pursuit of Happiness' (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 02, 1994

While the number of people who have died because of AIDS is enormous, the number living with the disease is even more staggering. "Living Proof: HIV and the Pursuit of Happiness," Kermit Cole's moving, eye-opening documentary, looks at this often-forgotten, greatly misunderstood population and, ultimately, brings us to this conclusion: Everything we know about living with AIDS is wrong.

The stereotype of the person who is HIV-positive is that of a sepulchral figure covered with lesions, homeless, penniless and alone. "Living Proof" is proof that nothing could be further from the truth. Using more than 30 interviews with people who have tested positive for the virus, the movie turns us away from the idea that life ends with the P-word. Cole's approach here couldn't be more different from most of what is seen in the media, which is often designed to foster safe, responsible behavior by scaring the public with horror stories and images of painful, sometimes gruesome death.

Though well-intentioned, this method tends to stigmatize the person with the virus, and create obstacles between us and them. But as the film shows, there is no us and them. The people in this movie -- who were approached through their participation in a photo-history project about living with HIV, by Carolyn Jones and George DeSipio -- come from all walks and ways of life. Bree Scott-Harland appears in drag, flamboyantly gay. Henry Nichols wears his Boy Scout uniform. Each story is different. Yet all of them talk about the need to find a positive way of living with the disease.

Structurally, the film is organized by subject, cutting briskly from one person to the next as they talk about catching the virus, being told by their doctors, having their initial reactions, telling their friends and family, and, finally, coming to terms with having AIDS in their lives. Though for the most part Cole avoids the trap of singling out one individual's experiences over another's, his camera seems almost inevitably drawn to Ross Johnson, a handsome, energetic young man who by all outward signs appears to be the picture of health. The movie is the essence of restraint, and as Johnson recalls how he told his grandfather that he had AIDS, his efforts to hold back the tears bring the film to its emotional high point. Its most sobering moment follows close behind when we learn that he died shortly after the scene was shot.

"Living Proof" takes us to Johnson's memorial service, but death is not really what the documentary is about. Other films may deal with the dark side of AIDS, but by dealing with the brighter side, the movie may help to bring the disease itself out of the closet.

Living Proof: HIV and the Pursuit of Happiness is not rated.

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