Thom Fitzgerald presents a globe-scanning epic about humanity’s response to the AIDS pandemic.
Countless movies already deal with AIDS, but writer/director Thom Fitzgerald uses his film 3 Needles to examine the epidemic on simultaneously global, personal, and spiritual levels. Amid beautiful scenery and equally beautiful people, the HIV virus takes its toll. The onslaught of a common enemy makes Fitzgerald, his narrator, and (hopefully) the audience wonder why we can’t all unite against that enemy.
The film’s narrator, and one of its stars, is Olympia Dukakis. Loved for her roles in hit films such as Steel Magnolias and Moonstruck, Dukakis has also appeared in many gay-themed features, such as Jeffrey, Tales of the City, and one of Fitzgerald’s previous films, The Event. She always charms viewers with natural, seemingly effortless performances, but here she plays one of her more dramatic, impassioned roles. As Sister Hilde, she not only tells the different stories in the film, but also tries to fight HIV in Africa.
3 Needles actually starts in South Africa, using it as a framework for the different stories. However, we only hear Sister Hilde’s voice at this time. Like the other stories, this one involves rituals. In this case, the ritual takes tribal boys into manhood, with rites of circumcision. A bloodied knife on the ground provides stark contrast to the splendor that surrounds the young men.
In preparation for the film, Fitzgerald traveled South Africa, trading stories with tribal elders while learning about the lives of South African people and how AIDS has impacted those lives. His obvious concern and admiration comes through on the screen as we follow the young men along their painful journey into manhood.
Though that part of the movie ends quickly, it introduces us to the magnificent work that cinematographer Thomas M. Harting provides throughout the film. Harting, a long-time collaborator with Fitzgerald, received the Atlantic Film Festival’s 2005 Best Cinematography Award for 3 Needles. While this movie might occasionally be hard to follow, and some of its violent scenes hard to watch, Harting makes every frame artistic. Shot in a variety of languages, and sometimes relying on no words at all, this movie puts much of its burden on the imagery; Harting brings that imagery to life.
Gorgeous images among pain also typify the next story, in which a pregnant woman (Lucy Liu) traffics black market blood, ignorantly spreading HIV throughout entire villages in China. With no understanding—not even a word—for the virus, she simply wants to support her family. Liu’s bright red clothes and pretty face epitomize the movie’s contrast of beauty in the midst of ugliness. She still manages to blend into the world of this story.
Shawn Ashmore and Stockard Channing also might surprise some of their fans. Ashmore played Ged in the Earthsea miniseries, Ice Man in the X-Men movies, and Terry Fox in the TV movie Terry. Here he plays a porn star, stealing blood to pass his HIV test, so he can support himself and his parents. He needs a negative test result to keep making more porn films, but he gives HIV to his costars. Ashmore’s good looks and sometimes ambiguous expressions make him convincing as someone who could incite so much trust and get away with anything.
As Olive, the mother of Ashmore’s character, multiple Emmy, SAG, and Tony award nominee Stockard Channing takes even more extreme measures to support her family. While Betty Rizo (Channing’s character in Grease) never was Sandra Dee, even she would blush after seeing what Olive does, and why she does it. Viewers who loved Channing in Grease, Out of Practice, The West Wing, Six Degrees of Separation, or The Matthew Shepard Story might barely recognize her. In 3 Needles, she makes her character look desperate and fatigued, turning an unlikely storyline into a moving tragedy.
The film’s ending story brings us back to South Africa, and provides glimpses of the young men from the first story. It also brings back some of the film’s most breathtaking scenery, contrasted with the film’s most violent and tragic scenes. Fitzgerald had read about South African tribesmen raping young virgin girls, in the folk belief that the virgins could cure AIDS. That atrocity makes its way into the conclusive tale.
The nuns meet resistance from the people they want to help and bureaucracy from all around. The harder they work, the more they suffer. Ultimately, their faith drives them to keep making whatever difference they can.
Overall, Fitzgerald offers a visually and emotionally stunning work. It requires careful attention and demands further thought. Some viewers might dislike its structure or its scope; still, few viewers could leave it without thinking more about how AIDS has changed the world, or what those changes mean for humanity.