Alison Duke, Production still for Promise Me (in post-production), 24:00 minutes. Photo by Yvano Antonio
ALISON DUKE’S MISSING MINUTES
ALISON DUKE IS ABSENT from her own work in ways that not many filmmakers are. After meeting this empathic documentarian at a conference in 2017, I had the privilege of sitting down with her that winter to talk about her approach to her subjects, her strategy for authorial removal, and about seventeen missing minutes from one film, which she is now compelled to revisit.
Duke’s acclaimed 2007 documentary The Woman I Have Become (2007)—produced for Toronto HIV/AIDS service organization Women’s Health in Women’s Hands—follows a group of HIV-positive women through their daily struggle against illness and stigma, with a focus on the latter. Over the course of its filming, one of the main subjects, a light-hearted mother of two named Rhonda S., dies of complications related to the disease. As the first Black woman in Ontario to publicly disclose her HIV status, Rhonda was cherished by her peers and other advocates as a beacon of honesty in the struggle against discrimination.1 She is the subject with the most apparent health challenges, and the only subject whose children were included in the frame, albeit with their faces blurred for confidentiality reasons. At the end of the film, Duke shows Rhonda’s support group peers grieving her loss, but there is much more that she was not allowed to show: this vivacious, queer, woman of colour’s life was unfairly shortened when/because Child and Family Services took away Rhonda’s two children, just months before her hospitalization and death. The Woman I Have Become is a part of a triptych on HIV and AIDS in Canada that constitutes crucial viewing for activists, policy-makers, health practitioners, and legal advocates working on the topic. Perhaps due to her strong reputation in non-fiction television production and community collaboration—not to mention her numerous music videos—these three films are considered less for what they do as films and more for the urgently meaningful content they convey.
The recent installments of this triptych, Positive Women: Exposing Injustice (2012) and Consent (2015) crystallize Duke’s style as a message-maker and conversation-instigator. Produced by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, the documentaries show the harm done by the ongoing legal quagmire known as HIV non-disclosure. The subject of both films is the impact of Canadian legal precedent that requires HIV positive people to disclose their HIV status to sexual partners. Failing to do so exposes carriers of the virus to charges of sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, and even, attempted murder.2 Consent is a particularly crucial work in explaining the origins of HIV non-disclosure law and current feminist critiques thereof. Starting in the late 1990s, the Canadian Supreme Court (and several US jurisdictions) instituted a legal mistreatment of HIV positive people that began in paranoia around transmission, but developed into a “Catch-22” in which HIV positive people who tell their sexual partners that they are carriers of the virus can be retroactively accused of not disclosing this information. Whether or not it is proven that an HIV positive (aka “poz”) person has disclosed their status, the mere accusation has severe ramifications for poz people everywhere. Not only are our faces plastered in the media but also police investigate cases of otherwise consensual sex between a poz and negative person as if it were sexual assault because non-disclosure is considered to vitiate the HIV negative person’s consent to sex. The HIV AIDS Legal Network and sociologist Alexander McClelland (AIDS ACTION NOW!) have written about this misapplication of the law and its disproportionate impact on HIV+ women and people of colour.3
Positive Women and Consent show women grappling with the impact of criminalization on their lives and work, including pointed interviews on how disclosing their status makes HIV positive people vulnerable to malicious accusations. One cornerstone of Positive Women is an infamous case of a Montreal woman, known only as Diane or “DC,” who was accused of non-disclosure by an ex-boyfriend who was convicted of beating her. Diane’s case would go all the way to the Supreme Court in the same year as the film, making it one of the most relevant and timely documentaries on the subject ever made. Talking to women living with the disease in Positive Women, and mostly to experts and advocates in Consent, Duke honed a filmic technique I will call “negative capability,” a term from literary criticism which I will reapply here to describe the active de-subjectivization of the authorial persona. This technique, which I will explain below, allows her to convey the complexity of the flawed jurisprudence that has made Canada the harshest country in world for HIV criminalization.4 I was particularly drawn to Duke’s treatment of this topic since I have also made work about HIV criminalization. I created a poster entitled SILENCE = SEX for AIDS ACTION NOW! which sponsored public art and awareness project called Poster/Virus, curated by Alexander McClelland and activist artist Jessica Whitbread. The poster, a détournement of the iconic SILENCE = DEATH poster created by the eponymous New York collective in 1987, was accompanied by a poem, “The New Equation,” in which I criticize the hypocrisy of queer progressives who appropriate the aesthetic of AIDS crisis activism while simultaneously rejecting and stigmatizing HIV+ people in the bedroom and beyond. When I participated on a panel organized by AIDS video historian Ryan Conrad at the Humanities Congress with Alison in May, 2017, I knew I had found a sister spirit: a teller of truths, working in a different medium on the same issue. Crucially, Duke’s work does not come from the same first-person perspective as my own. Her point of view is simultaneously broader—because documentaries available on the internet have a wider audience—and more attuned to specificities of race and gender.
NEGATIVE CAPABILITY IN Witness: A Deathly Silence (2003) AND The Woman I Have Become
“Negative capability” is typically used in theatre and poetry criticism to describe a writer’s capacity for disappearing into their work, but I argue Alison Duke uses this technique in her films in a specific and notable way. Her documentary oeuvre bids us to “contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems.”5 Taking up the theme most often associated with Romantic poet John Keats, critic Roberto Unger calls negative capability “the denial of whatever in our contexts delivers us over to a fixed scheme of division and hierarchy and to an enforced choice between routine and rebellion.”6 I adopt this term to explore how Alison Duke’s absence and presence in her work as a filmmaker changes according to her subject, and how her authorial absence is part of why her films are so compelling, and not just in the way that documentarians are presumed to be journalistically objective lenses on reality. Furthermore, her current plan to adapt seventeen “missing minutes” that she was forced to cut from The Woman I Have Become means that her use of documentary authorial absence may now have outworn its usefulness. Twelve years later, Alison Duke is still haunted by the death of a woman who features so prominently in a film that addresses many of her core themes: stigma, race, survival, death, and women’s realities.
Alison Duke, The Woman I Have Become (2007). Video, 60:00 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.
The Woman I Have Become, made before Duke’s other two influential HIV/AIDS documentaries commissioned during the benighted Harper era, is her crossover work between the earlier music-focused feature documentary Raisin’ Kane: A Rapumentary (2000) and her award-winning 2003 documentary, Witness: A Deathly Silence, a journalistic look at the gendered effects of gun violence on a mostly Black community. As a queer woman of colour, raised in public housing, who achieved renown and respect for her decades of work— for CHUM, the CBC, and the non-profit sector—Duke is often asked to speak about these issues, and about filmmaking, but told me she is rarely interviewed about her own work qua film. This stuck with me. My role as coordinator of the Queer Media Database Canada- Quebec (located at (or administered out of Concordia University) allowed me to visit Alison’s home and delve into her own understanding of this medium and these issues. The interview will be turned into a short-form video that will be released in September, 2019, as part of a series on influential queer Canadian filmmakers. (The series includes her York University advisor John Greyson, Two-Spirit video artist Thirza Cuthand, Quebec director André Brassard, and transgender activist, video and performance artist Mirha-Soleil Ross). In the remainder of this essay, I take the liberty of quoting extensively from the interview transcript, as both an homage to Duke’s documentary technique, and because I hope this essay serves as a companion piece to the video short about her work.
Besides several episodes of the series SEX TV, Duke’s only other enduring work with LGBTQ themes per se is the music video Batty Boy’s Revenge (2009), an anti-homophobia rap anthem made as a labour of love for her friend, singer and performer Troy Jackson. Jackson’s daring anthem was released amidst the fraught condemnation of Jamaican and Caribbean dance hall music’s tendency to permit overly homophobic lyrics. On the one side, LGBTQ activists from the global north branded these unseemly songs as “murder music,”7 while an opposing camp saw British and American condemnation (and calls for boycott) as colonialist in nature.8 A minority of mostly POC voices sought to understand the affect and politics of homophobia in this musical genre as a blight that needed to be deconstructed by the very communities from which it arose.9 In this standard pop-song- length rap music video, Duke helps frame the gay, Muslim, Afro-Métis’s singer’s anguish as a daring “j’accuse!” by an artist from (and living in) the community where dance hall’s dips into hate speech are shown as representative of a lifetime of violence, both verbal and physical, endured by Jackson and many QPOC (queer people of colour). The video is an unpopular opinion sung with all the swagger of the genre he is critiquing. Batty Boy’s Revenge is the queer aesthetic exemplified.
The Woman I Have Become exemplifies Duke’s unique documentary praxis. Her unadorned aesthetic and unfettered treatment of explicitly queer themes is unparalleled. Just as Jackson dared to call out the homophobia within his racialized and immigrant communities, so does Duke visit a part of Black Canadian experience that many wish could be shaken off, along with other stereotypes about Afro-Caribbean people in Canada: their over-representation in statistics on HIV infection.10 Beyond the fact that there is a far greater number of Black Canadians living with HIV per capita, rates of perinatal HIV transmission and so-called “heterosexual-endemic” exposure are exponentially higher among people of Caribbean and African origin in this country. Duke’s tribute to Rhonda S. and the women of colour living with HIV in The Woman I Have Become is not just a microcosm of a health statistic in the Black community: it is a powerful statement against the stigma that exacerbates the harms to Black health, and particularly Black women’s health, at a time when AIDS was thought of as a treatable illness, and its crises a thing of the past. The film follows Rhonda seeking support, reminiscence of her life before illness and treatments and side effects, and her worsening condition as her life narrows down to a series of doctor’s appointments, support group meetings, and cherished moments with her children.
Duke’s statement in The Woman I Have Become is made even more poignant for viewers because of the revelation, left unsaid in the film, and soon to be explored in docufiction, that Ontario’s Child and Family Services threatened Duke with a lawsuit and a fine for merely mentioning that Rhonda’s children were taken from her and put into foster care in 2007. Duke confided in me that she believes Rhonda’s rapid decline was hastened by the absence of her children, a story left untold in a film that this documentarian cannot let go of—and nor should she. The diodes of personal/political, maternal/subjective, and Black/everywoman are present in spades, and I learned that the authorially-absent Alison Duke is on the verge of filming a retelling that she needs to make just as much as we need to see it. But first, let’s look at how the intimacy of this documentary helps us empathize with a protagonist whose story the filmmaker cannot leave untold.
In a rare moment in Duke’s entire documentary oeuvre, we hear her ask Rhonda about the uncanny side effects of the pills she has to take to treat mycobacterium avium complex (M.A.C.), an opportunistic infection that can occur among immunosuppressed people. In this telling scene, Rhonda relates that the M.A.C. treatment has caused her otherwise light- brown skin to darken, but that she was met with incredulity and dismissal by health professionals:
RHONDA: They told me it’s going to take about a year to go … I think that’s the medication that made me black.
DUKE: Your skin colour used to be …?
RHONDA: Light, very light. Look at that picture there. One day I woke up, I looked in the mirror and I was black. I said to my doctor, “I got black …” And he told me “No that’s your complexion.” And I’m telling my pharmacist and family doctor, and I’m telling everybody and they’re telling me, “No that’s your complexion”—so I stopped my medication for a while and my complexion stayed where it was at that time. Then they started to say, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, you got dark,” or whatever. So, nobody wanted to acknowledge that the medication was messing with my pigments.
The scene harkens back to one in Witness: A Deathly Silence in which Duke visits the bedroom of a young male rapper, known fittingly by his MC name Ghetto Prophet, who lives adjacent to many of the locations of the unsolved gun crimes that are the film’s focus. He shares his gut-wrenching poetry with her. It’s a moment that displays the trust Alison Duke has earned from her subject, but it is not without controversy. She tells me that some viewers felt it unfair to show the beer bottles in the young man’s room, as if to suggest he had a drinking problem, especially since he would later die of medical neglect in prison. Like Rhonda S., who originally moved to Canada to study dance and who was beloved in her community as a voice for Black women living with HIV, the young man’s achievements are overshadowed by the tragedy of his circumstances, and the institutional violence that perpetuates his pain. But we do see him rapping, his rhymes and poetry a bravado contrast to the scenes of maternal grief, town hall meetings, and teen angst of which Witness: A Deathly Silence is mainly comprised.
The young man took me to his room and I saw the beer bottles all over his room. And I thought, ‘Wow this young man is suffering from problems that we haven’t even discussed. But I’ll just keep rolling with the beer bottles and see where this goes.’ And he actually invited me to his house to read some of his poetry.
We got there and I remember sitting on the bed and asking, ‘Where’s the poetry?’ … he just brings it out and he just had sheaves and sheaves and sheaves about how he truly feels, as a person. I just felt that for me that was a whole film. We have factions of mothers grieving … On the one hand, we had political people talking, we had police talking about it. But nobody was really talking to the young Black boy who was going through this, and what his issue or issues were. And, you can see that he’s trying to express himself, but it was so sad for me that all his expression about what he was going through was shoved in the dresser where nobody can see.11
While Duke is always painstakingly sympathetic while portraying her subjects, she also includes scenes in her films that may not necessarily seem flattering, but that nonetheless convey her subject’s truth. She says the choice to tell the story in unprettified ways is about an ethic of listening, and about not overly curating the scenes:
I think just being able to just listen to my subjects maybe, and to follow what they want to do and show instead of [thinking] ‘No: cut! I don’t have time for this, how’s that going to fit in?’ Not editing so much, when I’m shooting, but just seeing where the subject wants to go with it. I feel that when I’m making films, that I want the film to feel like the subject matter as well.
So, I want the film to have a sense of … if this is about disclosure, if people can’t disclose their status, there’s a whole feeling of silence, and not being able to do it, and I want you to feel that as a viewer. [When] it’s about “Witness: A Deathly Silence, I want you to be not only a witness to what’s going on, but the deathly silence of that young man, and what he was going through. […] In A Deathly Silence at the time, I was trying to show everything and not cover up anything. I think in most of my films, in particular that one, you can look at it with two different lenses, one from where you sit, the other from where you experience it, then there’s two sides to the story—the hierarchy of the subjects, where they land, are they the people going through it or the people discussing it, giving it context and rationalizing it.
The simultaneous delicacy and toughness with which she treats her subjects seems to arise from a combination of journalistic savoir-faire and an ingrained intuition about who is being silenced in any given situation.
I was the first [child in my family] born in Toronto and then they had two other sons after, so I’m the middle child and the only girl,” she tells me. “And so, observing things in community, in my house, was part of my survival. You had to know what was going on, you had to know when to talk, when to shut up— and you had to know how to circumvent situations for survival.
The middle child’s special perspective, like that of the queer Black woman, is perhaps about the simultaneous need to be seen/heard, and the need to withdraw/hide form forces and people whose power is beyond her control.
How to treat her subjects’ varying degrees of comfort with disclosing their HIV status was foremost in her mind when she started filming The Woman I Have Become. Of the eight women selected by Women’s Health in Women’s Hands, only seven would end up in the film, and only four would agree show their face on camera. How to balance the need for confidentiality and the impetus to unmask as a tool for empowerment, became its own challenge as the women were interviewed.
That day, I remember interviewing them … out of eight women … one woman would go on camera, the next woman wouldn’t. It was sort of like this thing that every other woman just didn’t want to have their face on camera, and I filmed them anyways. And I thought OK I’m going to film you but I’m going to figure out what to do and how to manipulate the footage and the sound if we end up using your voice.
Then I thought about it, I thought OK I’ll do that, but what is the purpose of doing that, what am I actually conveying to the audience when I do not show somebody’s face? How are people going to interpret that, are people going to interpret that as ‘Are they guilty? Do they have something to hide? Are they like a criminal?’ because usually you see criminals on film charged with something not showing their face, [so] do they have something to hide?
The end result foregrounds the four most vocal women who agree, for various reasons, to show their faces. Chantal, who has become and advocate in her community and finds empowerment in sharing her story with others; the endearing mothers Paulina and Lisungu, and of course, the late Rhonda S., whose death haunts the filmmaker to this day. Duke explains her process by which she arrived at her new project, Promise Me (in post- production):
The montages that I filmed in The Woman I Have Become, were really about the people who are our neighbours, our sisters, our lovers, our friends, people in our family, who are walking the streets every day, living their life every day, doing everything they’re doing every day and we don’t know what’s paining them, we don’t know. Especially when you look at women living with HIV. One step removed, where there’s so much stigma; we know there’s stigma and discrimination.
I just wanted to make that pronouncement: [these are] the voices that cannot talk about it. The courageous women who are able to show their face and talk about how they were treated when they first disclosed their status to medical personnel, or how they found out [their diagnosis] … The process of them finding out could’ve been really oppressive. Like going to immigration, and they throw a paper at you and speak to you a certain way, you know that kind of thing? I think the film was successful in that.
Then you think it’s going to wrap up in a nice frame … like a nice tiny bow that movies are supposed to wrap things up. And I had this one subject who was one of the first people to speak out and show her face on camera and speaking out in public, saying ‘Yes I have HIV and I’m a Caribbean woman’—because there were both Black African and Black Caribbean women showing their faces in the film, and she [Rhonda S.] was one of the first ones, on the front line.
Alison Duke, Production still for Promise Me (in post-production), 24:00 minutes. Photo by Yvano Antonio
And she dies … She died. She was a person who had been living with HIV for 20–30 years, and her children were apprehended by Child and Family Servicesbecause they were her caregivers in a sense, taking care of her when she was not feeling well, missing some days of school. A teacher basically said, ‘This is not cool that your kids are not going to school,’ and removed her kids when she was the most vulnerable.
It happened twice in her life: the first time, I wasn’t around when it happened, but the second time we were just ending filming and I remember she called me up and said, ‘You need to come over; I need to talk to you.’ I came over with my camera, it was a winter day and she was lying on the couch. I interviewed her and she started singing! Trying to find some joy left in her life after this happened to her. I think I said, ‘what do you want me to do?’
She said, ‘Just stay right there,’ and she started singing to the camera. I didn’t know if this was going to make it into the film or not, I just thought ‘I’m going to do what this lady is telling me to do’! When she passed away I was just … it was just so heartbreaking. I couldn’t believe that that could happen.
Alison Duke, Production still for Promise Me (in post-production), 24:00 minutes. Photo by Yvano Antonio
In The Woman I Have Become, what had happened to Rhonda S. with the surveillance of her and her family as she was living with HIV, and the State … you know CAFS/ child welfare coming and taking away her children in the height … when she was the most vulnerable physically. That’s a travesty that I’ll never forget, that last time filming her on the couch, when she just told me the story about how her children were taken away. That just always haunted me. In fact, I had included some of that in the film as well, as beautiful shots and imagery, of her and her children throughout the film.
Child welfare came to Women’s Health in Women’s Hands and said that if we show either of her children in this film or put that scene in where she talks about how her children were taken, that we could be fined $10,000 or put in jail for 3 years. So, I actually had to remove 17 minutes from the film.
At that point, when I had finished the film, I believe it was just under one hour, and I felt it was just the most perfect film I’d ever made. And then Child Welfare came. At that point, I felt that my first cut … I felt it was the most perfect film I’d ever made. Just telling the story, the balance, and what happened to Rhonda, and then Child Welfare told us to take out the 17 minutes with her and her children, how they were living every day, how she was just an amazing mother. I thought that was horrific. So that’s also stayed with me these years, and I’m going to make a film about the missing 17 minutes, what Rhonda had spoken to me, and what I was unable to show.
When I sat down with Alison Duke again in February, 2018, she had just presented on a panel of Black women artists for an event on Family Day at the Harbourfront Centre. Her eyes sparkled with the promise of who she might cast to play Rhonda S. in the fiction short, in development and to be shot in 2019. Promise Me will be her riposte to Child and Family Services for censoring her story, and for bringing about Rhonda’s early death. Enrolled at York University’s MFA in film, she will summon all her creative powers: her years of making music videos and punchy half-hour essays, and her finely honed intuitions about letting her subjects speak for themselves. Joking that “no one wants to see another sad movie,” she plans to include original music in the film, suggesting that the turn to fiction will be about depicting the texture of Rhonda’s life instead of just the drama of her death. She’s collaborating on the script with Lindsey Addawoo, an emerging filmmaker whose fantastic Queen of Hearts will be completed this year. She concludes on how being a queer woman of colour has shaped her practice:
I feel that part of it [comes] back to survival. I think we all have to come to film … with our experiences and not be afraid to be honest about how you feel about these things that you see in society or your own family or whatever you’re covering.
And not be afraid to upset people and not be afraid to not have things wrap up in a nice bow. We have to do that and I think when we have to that we’re doing our jobs as documentarians and filmmakers. I think when we don’t do that, your voice, your work, it just risks of being just for the moment, not something that you can go back and look at and see how it relates to other moments.
I think if you’re having a conversation, if you make your film in a way that you’re having a conversation about issues that’s the most powerful thing you can do!
By the time this article is published, Alison Duke will be that much closer to completing the filmic conversation she started in 2007 with The Woman I Have Become. She may be less removed from the frame—it remains to be seen if the film will include documentary elements—but her subject is sure to speak once more.
The author is indebted to Queer Media Database Canada-Québec research collaborators Jay Bossé and Étienne Ganjohian for their assistance with this research and with the interview that made this article possible, to Prof. Thomas Waugh for helming the project, and to Deanna Bowen and her editorial collaborators for helping make this article better.
- Lena Soje, “Remembering Rhonda,” in Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention Annual Report 2006/2007, (Toronto: BLACK CAP, 2007), 5.
- Alexander McClelland, “Research at the medico-legal borderland: perspectives on HIV and criminal law,” Somatosphere, Oct. 2013: http://somatosphere.net/2013/10/research-at-the-medico-legal-borderland.html, accessed March 2018.
- Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, “HIV Criminalization in Canada: Current Context & Advocacy,” grey paper, Dec. 2016: http://www.aidslaw.ca/site/hiv-criminalization-in-canada-current-context-advocacy/?lang=en
- Sarah Schulman, “Canada’s Vicious HIV Laws,” Slate, May 2014: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2014/05/canada_criminalizes_ nondisclosure_of_hiv_status_shifts_responsibility_from.html, accessed March 2018.
- Anonymous, “Negative Capability,” Keats’s Kingdom, http://www.keatsian.co.uk/negative-capability.php, accessed March, 2018
- Roberto Unger, False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy, Revised Edition. (London: Verso, 2004), 279–280, 632.
- Peter Tatchell, “Hypocrisy on Homophobia” in The Guardian, Monday, 17 November, 2008. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/nov/17/gayrights-jamaica Accessed March, 2019
- Rogers, James, “‘Killer Vacations’ and ‘Murder Music’: The Discourses of Gay Identity, Consumerism, and Race in the Gay-Dancehall Confrontation” (2010). Digitized Theses. 3211.
- Akim Ade Larcher and Colin Robinson, “Fighting ‘Murder Music’: Activist Reflections” in Caribbean Review of Gender Studies. Issue 3, 2009. University of the West Indies Centre for Gender and Development Studies: Mona, Jamaica
- Population-Specific HIV Status Report: People Living with AIDS. Public Health Agency of Canada. Ottawa: 2013. 12-17
- Interview conducted by the author in December, 2017, in Toronto. All indented quotes from transcript by the author.