"QUIET HEROES" — 2½ stars — Kristen Ries, Maggie Snyder, Peter Christie; not rated, probable PG or PG-13 for some profanity and adult content; Sundance Film Festival
Director Jenny Mackenzie is no stranger to Utah's challenges.
Last year, the Salt Lake City-based filmmaker explored the ongoing opiod crisis through her documentary "Dying in Vein." This year, Mackenzie brings "Quiet Heroes" to the Sundance Film Festival, a documentary recounting the outbreak of the AIDS virus in Utah in the 1980s. Drawing from a number of interviews and archival footage, Mackenzie focuses her story on the work of Dr. Kristen Ries, who was the key figure in efforts to assist patients.
Early on, “Quiet Heroes” sets the stage for a Salt Lake population, which, like many communities in the 1980s, was blindsided by the new and mysterious illness. According to the film, AIDS went on to claim enough lives in America to rank as the No. 1 killer of people ages 35-45 from 1985 to 1996.
The documentary asserts that due to Utah's heavily religious culture, the Beehive State was slow to accept the reality of this national problem at home. According to the film, stigmas attached to AIDS victims and uncertainty and fear surrounding the nature of the illness left physicians unwilling to treat patients.
Enter Ries, a specialist in infectious disease who arrived in Salt Lake City in 1981 and quickly became the only physician willing to treat AIDS patients. Ries was able to find room to work at Holy Cross Hospital, and eventually her patient list became so large she recruited a nurse named Maggie Snyder for assistance.
As we learn about Ries’ practice, “Quiet Heroes” moves us through the early landmark events in the story of AIDS treatment, including how drugs such as AZT and the so-called “Triple Combination” were able to greatly increase patient life expectancy.
Local patients such as Peter Christie, a former Ballet West dancer and current Director of Education and Outreach, were originally slated for an early death — Ries remarks that for many early patients, she and her team essentially just “helped them die” — but thanks to advancements and treatment, Christie appears to be doing perfectly well.
Over the course of a relatively brief 68 minute run time, Mackenzie draws on interviews from, among others, former Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson, current Utah State Senator Jim Dabakis and Elizabeth Clement, an associate professor of history at the University of Utah, all of whom praise Ries for her efforts while criticizing Utah's conservative culture.
While the AIDS crisis challenged communities around the world in different ways, Mackenzie's Utah-focused film scrutinizes The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a faith that teaches that homosexual behavior is sinful. And while there is no shortage of talking heads who speak well of Ries' important and meaningful work, there are also no interviews with people who might dispute Mackenzie's negative characterizations of the LDS Church, which is represented only by excerpts from general conference addresses from the period. (Mackenzie doesn’t indicate whether any attempt was made to get an official church statement for her film.)
One subject who does attempt to bridge the gap is Kim Smith, whose husband Steve worked to maintain their membership in the church after coming out as gay several years into their marriage. Kim eventually contracted HIV through her husband, and praises Ries’ efforts to help AIDS patients.
That Ries is a quiet hero worthy of the documentary's attention is apparent throughout the film, but the story of Utah's AIDS crisis would be better served with a fuller treatment.
"Quiet Heroes" is not rated, but would likely draw a PG or PG-13 rating for some profanity and adult content; running time: 68 minutes.