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The following is the first of three papers written by students in a "Sociology of AIDS" class taught at the University of California Santa Barbara. The papers were written after the students had viewed "In the Company of Strangers" in class.
Film Review: "In the Company of Strangers"
Thomas Hofbauer's "In the Company of Strangers" is a heartfelt and moving film about a young man's journey from homophobia to compassion. The film provides vivid images of AIDS patients and how they affect the lives of those around them. "In the Company of Strangers" deftly depicts the range of reactions to AIDS, varying from fear and disgust to consciousness and activism. Above all, the film explores the causes and effects of homophobia, proving that it can be overcome in the face of humanity and the power of the human spirit.
Hotbauer's film traces the story of a homophobic thug serving a community service sentence at an AIDS hospice. As the narrative unfolds, the main character, Brian, becomes more and more engrossed in the lives of the patients at the hospice. The owner of the Trinity House, Mitch, patiently and gently guides Brian out of his homophobic state by educating him about AIDS and sharing personal stories with him. Brian also develops relationships with patients at Trinity House. James is one such patient who Brian fosters a connection with. It is as he is getting to know James that Brian realizes that AIDS is not a moral issue but rather a medical condition. Through these relationships Brian is able to see the blatant and cruel homophobia in his former friends and is able to disassociate himself from them. By the end of the film, Brian is substantially more enlightened and enriched by his experience at Trinity House.
Rather than addressing fear of homosexuals, the film is more about Brian's own demons and fears that are manifested in his homophobia. He has a great deal of anger within him, largely due to the strained relationship with his father. By developing caring and meaningful relationships at Trinity House he is able to channel his energy into positive interactions rather than negative ones. Slowly his homophobia is overcome by compassion as he realizes that the stereotypes that he previously had were false. As he becomes closer with the people at Trinity House, Brian begins to understand that gay identifying people are human beings just like him, they are not inferior "freaks" as he had once categorized them. At the end of the film, Brian is able to recognize his former homophobic self in James' son, Mike. His interactions with Mike illustrate how far Brian has come in his development of acceptance and compassion.
As discussed in Dennis Altman's "A Very Political Epidemic", the way in which AIDS was politicized in the late 1980s made it a moral issue affecting stigmatized groups rather than a medical issue. Such political responses shaped how people viewed those afflicted with AIDS, making society not only less sympathetic but also reluctant to actively fight the disease. Since AIDS was associated with a particular group that was already very much marginalized, the societal response to AIDS was thus negatively influenced. These responses were largely due to homophobia, and such feelings are represented in Brian at the beginning of the film, and later with Mike. Such homophobia is counterproductive and unnecessary in the fight against AIDS, as Brian slowly learns throughout the film.
I really enjoyed the film because Hofbauer did such an excellent job of conveying sympathy for the characters and communicating the devastating effects of homophobia. The film handled emotional scenes deftly, without being preachy or heavy handed. The film was also realistic in its portrayal of its respective characters; the actions and reactions of the characters were normal and expected, such as when Brian repeatedly washed his hands after touching James. My only critique of the film was when James apologized for being gay, saying that he would not have chosen his sexual identity. This is a common representation in the media of gay people: that they need to explain themselves and apologize for their sexual identity. No one should have to apologize for being gay or identifying as any other sexuality, and the film would have been more effective if James had not shown such remorse about his sexuality.
"In the Company of Strangers" handled many complicated issues very well, including dealing with homophobia and AIDS. After viewing the film, one is left wondering what can be done to combat homophobia; what can be done to prevent another young man like Brain from committing another homophobic hate crime. The answer is not easy or clear. In order to truly make gains against homophobia, much social change must take place. Education regarding queer issues should be increased, as well as cultural stereotypes. In addition, homosexual stereotypes within society must decrease, because it is these unrealistic stereotypes that perpetuate homophobia and hate against a fellow human being.