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Needles’ point 

Thom Fitzgerald’s AIDS triptych finally comes home. Sean Flinn talks to the writer-director about the new, international cut of 3 Needles.

The world is Thom Fitzgerald’s work-place. He’s in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to promote his feature 3 Needles at the city’s film festival, his fourth film to show at the event.

The story of 3 Needles spans the globe, presenting three transformative moments of HIV infecting people living in remote China, rural South Africa and Montreal.

“Films travel and I try to make my films relevant to an international audience,” Fitzgerald writes in an email from Rio.

The international audience includes Halifax for the filmmaker, who’s been nominated for a Director’s Guild of Canada award. He screens an international cut of 3 Needles on October 12 in support of the Nova Scotia Gambia Association. The Canadian International Development Agency is kicking in an extra $2 for every dollar raised by the NSGA screening. The international version presents the three Chinese, South African and Canadian stories as a trio of short films, whereas the “Canadian edit” (a single narrative cutting back and forth between the three locales) screened simultaneously to three packed houses last year at the opening of the Atlantic Film Festival.

“I like both versions very much, but I think this one has more humour and immediacy,” Fitzgerald says of the international version. “You grow more attached to each character’s point of view.

“I quite like the way the ideas are butted together in the Canadian edit, but I wrote and shot the stories distinctly—as three separate experiences.”

Fitzgerald’s motivation for screening 3 Needles to benefit NSGA goes back to the shoot in South Africa itself. “My time in Africa illuminated the value of education. I saw that in a country where one in three adults is estimated to have HIV. They had a clinic serving 70,000 people with no HIV drugs and no doctor. I saw AIDS prevention billboards in English, though none of the tribal people spoke or read the language.”

After that experience, Fitzgerald came to believe in the need to educate. “The Nova Scotia Gambia Association was one of the first to explore peer education through drama—acting, skits, engaging an audience in discussion in their own language, on their own terms. Their work has been absolutely instrumental in lowering the HIV infection rates in The Gambia. They are now in every high school in that country, acknowledged by the government as the major success in AIDS prevention.”

In the film, three different communities fall into chaos in the absence of education and any coherent approach to preventing infection and spread of AIDS. Margaret-Anne Bennett, chair of the NSGA board of directors, saw 3 Needles at the AFF and appreciated how Fitzgerald didn’t judge but simply portrayed how, in the absence of knowledge, the disease spread around the world.

“We often hear AIDS and Africa in the same sentence and often fail to realize that it’s a worldwide issue,” observes Bennett. “The movie captures that in three very different stories on three very different continents. It’s an issue for all of humanity.”

When she approached Fitzgerald about a benefit screening of 3 Needles, they clicked immediately. Bennett also outlined the NSGA’s focus on prevention and self-determination of the communities in West African nations, such as The Gambia.

“We work with youth in schools in The Gambia and Sierra Leone and reach many villages and towns across both countries with our drama troupes,” she says. “Young adults, who were peer health educators in their schools, and who, after graduation, were hired by the NSGA to take their knowledge to their villages and to their elders.”

Compared to countries such as South Africa, or nations in the continent’s central and eastern regions, The Gambia, as with much of West Africa, has had lower rates of HIV infection. Evidence suggests this is changing, Bennett says. Groups like hers fear the virus is spreading up the west coast, thus making prevention now even more urgent.

The urgency is present in 3 Needles. Still, Fitzgerald insists: “I’m no activist. The film tries to find the reasons that AIDS has separated nations and subcultures instead of bringing us all together.”

Those reasons are culture, faith, place and many other things that go into individual identity and choices—decisions that can change the course of a life.

3 Needles, October 12 at Park Lane, 6pm, followed by a gala at the Lord Nelson, 9-10:30pm, $100, 429-7070.

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