Studded with local heroes and familiar downtown scenery, Quiet Heroes made for the perfect film to officially kick off the 15th Annual Damn These Heels Film Festival weekend. Directors Jared Ruga, Amanda Stoddard and Jenny Mackenzie received a standing ovation at the film’s Sundance premiere this year. Set in Salt Lake City 1980’s, Dr. Kristen Ries, a specialist in infectious disease, moves to town. Coincidentally enough, that same month AIDS was finally presented as a threatening disease to the Salt Lake community.
Old archival footage and contemporary interviews make up the film that tells the story of Dr. Reis as she finds a refuge for her practice in the Holy Cross Catholic Hospital. There, she diagnoses her first among thousands of HIV/AIDS patients. A group of nuns passionately help her care for the non-stop flow of ostracized patients who had been turned away from every other hospital in town.
The care given by Dr. Reis and the Catholic nuns starkly contrasts the blatant ignorance and shame that the LDS church casts on the dying community suffering from HIV/AIDS. Original footage shows LDS church leaders speaking shamefully about men who “want to touch each other.” The more liberal beliefs of local personalities like former SLC Mayor Rocky Anderson, a human rights activist who was awarded as a top ten straight ally for the LGBT community by The Human Rights Campaign in 2017, and Senator Jim Dabakis, who’s political career began after co-founded Utah Pride Center and Equality Utah. Their commentary on intimacy with another person being an inherent human right serves as a strong juxtaposition to the LDS church’s dogmatic prose.
Dr. Ries was not the only subject in the film, however. Through old photos we get to know a young nurse named Maggie Snyder, who displayed the kind of compassionate care that is needed in a caretaker. Dr. Ries decides to put Snyder through PA school so that there would be one more doctor in town willing to work with the HIV/AIDS patients. After the closure of Holy Cross in 1994, Reis and Snyder move their practice to the University of Utah Hospital where they saved lives up through the 2000’s.
Old home-video footage portrays many of the patient’s stories, since an overwhelming majority of them are no longer alive today. One subject, Peter Christie, who was diagnosed while dancing as a soloist for Ballet West, shares stories of losing entire groups of friends. Although he was not shamed for his disease among the art world, Salt Lake City itself was simply not properly addressing this major epidemic that was sweeping the nation at the time. As it was stated in multiple interviews: “We just thought we were so isolated here in the valley.” Many patients shown in the film were homeless, jobless and planning their deaths.
When a new medication known as highly active antiretroviral therapy came out, people actually stopped dying. As many sadly chose to accept their fate and not take the medication, Christie, who was on the brink of death, made the bold choice to keep going. And he is still alive today to share that story on screen, as director of Ballet West.
Despite the patient’s feeling of isolation here, Salt Lake City is not an isolated valley and the film reflects a story that is. The viewer is left with this question, was it just Salt Lake that was failing to properly address the HIV/AIDS epidemic, or was it being handled differently in other cities? The holes in the documentary were where a national scope of the epidemic and movements approaching alongside it could have been mentioned.
While the film is devastatingly truthful, it repetitively shines a happy light on every situation. Like when Ries and Snyder are finally asked about their personal relationship to one another. “Well, we’d go out to eat together after work because, you gotta eat,” Snyder describes in a sarcastic tone, recalling her first date with Ries. Due to the nature of their work, they kept their romantic relationship under wraps. The doctors weren’t totally portrayed as “out and proud” until much later in their lives when the focus of their work wasn’t at stake.
Ruga, who originally gathered all of the archival footage during a University of Utah Grad school project, hoped to make something that would serve as a “wake-up call “ for younger activists who might be “generationally segregated.” The film served flawlessly as a reminder to contemporary allies and members of the LGBTQ community that we can never forget these quiet stories and tragic deaths beneath the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 80’s.
Jane Lyon is a proud staff writer for CATALYST Magazine who loves indie-film.