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Film: The search for the first ever person believed to be cured of HIV

When I met television creative Edgar Tang, back in 2011 during the PromaxBDA Asia regional conference, I didn’t know of Timothy Ray Brown, the American patient who became the first person in the world to be cured of HIV — or that Tang himself was already passionately knee-deep in documenting his journey to meet the survivor known as The Berlin Patient.

When I met television creative Edgar Tang, back in 2011 during the PromaxBDA Asia regional conference, I didn’t know of Timothy Ray Brown, the American patient who became the first person in the world to be cured of HIV — or that Tang himself was already passionately knee-deep in documenting his journey to meet the survivor known as The Berlin Patient.

It was to be the first documentary feature for this erstwhile television producer and cinematographer. “I don’t know how or what will happen, but I’m going to carry on,” he said back then.

Together with co-director Dzul Sungit, Tang had already been in Berlin in search of Brown’s doctor Gero Hutter, a German hematologist who wiped out Brown’s immune system with radiation and chemotherapy, and then rebuilt it with stem cell blood transplant from a donor with genetic immunity to HIV. That ground-breaking approach is believed to have kept Brown HIV-negative since 2007.

But the spontaneous pair had yet to meet the “mystical being” (as Tang calls Brown). And so it was off to Amsterdam, where Brown was scheduled to speak at an AIDS activist event — even if there was no guarantee of meeting the man.

Two years on and I’m at the charity screening of I Hugged A Berlin Patient.

The 38-year-old Tang, who himself had been diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma back in June 2007 and is now in remission, has come a long way indeed.

Currently a senior producer at HBO Asia, Tang was candid about why he made a film about an HIV survivor, instead of, say, his own battle with cancer, among other things.

Said Tang: “You never know when life throws you a curveball. Let’s celebrate resilience and hope and anti-discrimination and judgment.”

 

Q: What were the challenges you faced?

A: There are many challenges in documentary film-making, like when you miss the moment, it’s over. The picture where you see I hugged Timothy was not the actual hug — because Dzul and I were so excited, we both lunged to hug him and nobody was recording! Technically, we didn’t record the (actual) hug. But, emotionally, I hope, audiences can feel my reaction in the end ... it gave me a huge sense of peace after meeting him. And that’s when we realised the cameras can stop rolling. And we can go home.

 

Q: Have you been in touch with Timothy all this time?

A: On and off, yes, we just spoke to him a week and a half ago. He’s aware of our charity screenings. He’s doing well. He’s busy doing his AIDS cure activism.

 

Q: What made you want to find Timothy and document this search?

A: Timothy Brown, The Berlin Patient, represents hope. And I think hope is transparent whether or not you have a particular disease or problem. It’s just something that I saw in him, in being someone taken out of obscurity and given this role, this responsibility. In some ways, I didn’t expect him to turn out to be the person I met, because he was just so nice. He is not your normal poster boy, the one shouting out from the rooftops that he is the first man cured of HIV. He’s just very humble. His journey — the physical sacrifices he had to endure, — was very poetic and ironic. He had all these physical disabilities from a robbery and a botched brain biopsy. It’s like he was very heng (lucky) and very suay (unlucky) at the same time. I think he’s like a cat with more than nine lives.

 

Q: Looking at your completed work, what would you have done differently?

A: I would safely say, absolutely nothing. The beauty of the film was just how it was very spontaneous and organic at every stage of the journey.

 

Q: After this long emotional and life-changing journey and finally meeting Timothy, what advice would you give your pre-cancer self?

A: That’s a rather difficult question to answer because it’s safe to say that the Edgar before and the Edgar after are probably very different. Having grown up in Singapore, we feel a certain need to control our lives. We’d like things to be systematic. To have something like cancer thrown in your way, it changes your plan. If I would say anything to my old self, it would be, “Hey you don’t really have to plan that far ahead.”

When we went on this film journey, we were prepared to never meet The Berlin Patient. We were okay with that because the inspired journey that came without ever meeting him would have been enough for us.

His story is so layered. It also gave me faith that you don’t always need that happy ending, you don’t always need that guarantee, when things get thrown in your way, and breaks that momentum, we should embrace it.

 

Q: What should Singaporeans take away from this film?

A: One of the greatest feedback I got was there is a message of hope and spontaneity that resonates very well in this little film of ours. And it was universal. The level of spontaneity of the film, how it even was made to begin with, that’s really interesting. We all have a routine. We all have careers. But once in a while, we should embrace things that are out of our comfort zone. And I think that kind of respite is something audiences can enjoy. Especially if you’re Singaporean.

 

Q: Where are you hoping to take I Hugged The Berlin Patient?

 

A: We are planning to have the film benefit charities anywhere in the world that wants to play it. If possible, to Berlin, if it can happen. Our goal, because it’s been such a blessing, we are going pay it forward to as many charities related to the case as possible — cancer, bone marrow, HIV.

 

I Hugged The Berlin Patient is showing exclusively at Cathay Cineplex Cineleisure Orchard.

Edgar Tang’s Berlin Films company will be donating net proceeds to Action For AIDS Singapore.

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