Writer/director Armand Petri tackles themes of guilt, accountability, and HIV in his new short film Undetectable.
The film gives us the story of Adam who is living with HIV. Adam’s nightmares are forcing him to confront the guilt he feels for cheating on his ex-lover, Raphael, to whom he also transmitted the HIV virus. On the anniversary of their diagnosis, Adam tries to reach out to Raphael, with unforeseen consequences.
I spoke with filmmaker Armand Petri for a behind-the-scenes look at the film:
What was your inspiration for this story?
I wanted to write a film that would appeal to both LGBTQ and general audiences. There are a lot of preconceived ideas about living with HIV, and a lot of people don’t have too much information about what being ‘undetectable’ truly means.
My own knowledge about the subject matter was challenged when I began the actual research for Undetectable. It became important for me to create a film that would help fight the stigmas associated with HIV, while still presenting an original film that could appeal to all audiences.
The film features a mixed-status gay couple, and I think there’s educational value for audiences there. Not everyone can relate to the actual experience of living with HIV. I’m negative, so I don’t know what being undetectable truly feels like, but everyone can relate to heartbreak and loneliness. Everyone can relate to feeling invisible.
I think, at the core, my need as an artist to express and confront my own feelings of invisibility was the main inspiration for this story, and I think that’s the reason why audiences have embraced the film.
How long did it take to write?
I wrote the script in about one week. I knew the story I wanted to tell right away, along with its twist and its general tone, but I needed more time to educate myself on the subject of HIV/AIDS. I researched for a few weeks, and what I learned was an eye-opener.
I definitely needed to be accurate and respectful, so I invested a lot of my time studying and reading different articles and testimonials on what it means to live as an undetectable person. I found several websites and blogs run by HIV-positive activists, and I was very impressed by the great educational effort being done online to combat HIV stigmatisation. Once I was satisfied with my research, I re-wrote the script within a couple of days.
What was the casting process like?
I truly enjoyed the casting process for Undetectable. We knew this script was very demanding, so it was very important for our production team to find the right actors to bring these characters to life.
Bob Hosken, who plays Adam, was in strong consideration for the role from his first audition and he fought with determination to land this part. The casting for the character of Raphael, which ultimately went to Kyle Patrick Darling, was a very competitive journey. We had our top contenders attend a couple of callbacks in Los Angeles and in the end, Kyle – with all his passion, charisma, and his willingness to be vulnerable – stood out as the best choice for this role.
How long did it take to film?
We filmed for three days in the Los Angeles County area. Pre-production and rehearsal took us about six weeks, but the actual shoot – luckily – went smoothly and everyone gave their 100 percent.
What does the film have to say about the celebration of undetectable status for people living with HIV?
Achieving undetectable status is an important milestone for all HIV-positive individuals. But I believe more education is needed when it comes to discussing the functionality and quality of life for individuals diagnosed with HIV.
While working on this film, I noticed a lot of the conversation steers toward discussing diagnosis, treatment and possible cure. In my opinion, there is more we can do as a society to teach people that living with HIV is not the death sentence it was considered to be decades ago.
Undetectable begins with its main character, an undetectable gay male, waking up in bed next to his HIV-negative partner. Looking at the film from the perspective of a general audience member, this on-screen portrayal of functionality is a step in the right direction toward more sensitive representation of HIV individuals.
It’s important to teach the public how men and women who are diagnosed with HIV, and eventually achieve undetectable status, are able to continue their lives without functional impairments.
What reaction have you had to the film so far?
The response for this film has been very favourable and has found success through word-of-mouth. In the beginning, right after the film completed its festival run, we started receiving positive reviews and recommendations from LGBTQ bloggers and publications. The positive feedback led to press coverage, and eventually helped the film secure distribution worldwide. We wouldn’t have made it this far without the different people who took a chance on this film and believed in it.
What do you hope that audiences feel when watching Undetectable?
I’d like them to feel satisfied with the film’s final twist, and I hope they are affected by the characters we created, and their choices.
On a personal note, I hope Undetectable can provide strength to those out there who might be feeling invisible right now. I consider this film a personal and cathartic journey – directing it made me a stronger man, and it also changed my perception about HIV.
I would like for the audience to gain a deeper understanding and respect for the LGBTQ community and the stories of those living and thriving with HIV.