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The following is the second 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.
The 2002 film In the Company of Strangers directed by Thomas Hofbauer, is an extraordinary story about a young man from Ohio by the name of Brian who was alternatively sentenced to volunteer at Trinity House, after assaulting a gay couple. The Trinity House was designed to provide a residential safe space for people living HIV/AIDS. Throughout the film Brian's attitude shifted from "a problem kid" apathetic to the issue of AIDS and a heterosexist with extreme homophobia to an attitude that is filled with compassion, understanding and knowledge. Although the film touches on the issue of AIDS, what seemed to be the most compelling theme surrounded the film are the marginalization, stigmatization, hostility, and oppression that gays, lesbians, transgender, and bisexuals struggle with within a heterosexist society.
The extreme homophobia that is prevalent in our society and the stigma that misinformation of AIDS brings are both social and political messages that struck me within the film. This message was best illustrated in the scene where Mikey, James's son (a resident of Trinity whom impacted Brian's life) spat in James's dying face. Brain emphasizes "Mikey he is going to die." Mikey then illustrates his contempt by stating "that man stopped being my father the day he starting (sleeping with) guys." This constant theme of heterosexism initiating hostility has many consequences to those that suffer the burden of being the targets of something that these individuals have no control over and that is their sexuality. These specific messages relate to the constant issues that we have discussed throughout the course thus illustrating common themes of biological rejection and harm of cocktail drugs (AZT), denial - "never thought it can happen to me. AIDS was something other people got"- stated by James prior to his death. Moreover, there is a continuous theme of misinformation and stigmatization that are continuously associated with AIDS as illustrated in the course readings of the Dalton article and the Maticka--Tyndale article.
After viewing the film it became apparent that there was an indirect intended audience however, the film seems to most benefit individuals that are misinformed about the AIDS pandemic and issues involving sexuality.
Director Hofbauer employs indirect subliminal techniques to convey particular messages. These messages are designed to educate the viewer about AIDS in relation to homosexuality, such techniques are illustrated in the scene :Why did you do it... turn gay"" With a chuckle James says "Well, I did not turn gay.. .believe me, it was not a choice, if it was a choice I would not have made that one, its too hard - the social stigma" that continues to burden lives and continues to be associated with hatred and hostility, is something that one would not even wish on one's own enemy. This very idea goes back to the early misconceptions discussed earlier in the course that AIDS is a "gay disease".
The information and interpretations that the film conveys stresses the issue of homosexuality more so than the issue of AIDS. These interpretations are different from my own perspective by reason of initially thinking that more people would have stronger negative sentiments about AIDS than the issue of one's sexual preference. However, my perspective was challenged in the film when Brian states "it's not the fact that they have AIDS it's the fact that they are gay." Brian expresses that he would rather go to jail than stand to be around someone that has a preference for the same sex. This deep contempt toward same sex preference and the issue of AIDS rest upon the ideology of American society. A society that continues to ignore the unique circumstances of AIDS and homosexuality will continue to be hostile toward the members that happen to fall within these two groups. I suggest the most powerful tool that can overcome these obstacles is the tool of education. With knowledge as illustrated in the film one sees it as the first step in eliminating the torch that ignites hostility, marginalization, and oppression.
Furthermore, Thomas Hofbauer was very effective in delivering his message. The storyline rapidly sparked my interest, and kept me intrigued every step of the way due to Brian's unpredictable character. At times the film placed me on what felt like an emotional roller coaster - I laughed, I cried, I feared, and sadly to say - I hated however, the most compelling emotion that I seemed to never escape was anger. I was angry by the ignorance Mikey, Brian and his companion possessed, and such ignorance still remains sadly reflected in our society. However, the question I only dream to have an answer to is - when is this stigmatization and oppression going to end? Hopefully this will end sometime in my lifetime. Nevertheless, Hofbauer does an excellent job in showing how one young man can completely turn his life around by simply being in the company of a stranger that he will never forget.
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