Film honors a heroic AIDS physician in Salt Lake City
Jared Ruga knows how it feels to be an outsider in a predominantly conservative society. But he is humbled knowing the obstacles he faces are small compared to the life-and-death challenges encountered by Salt Lake City’s gay community in the 1980s.
Three years ago, Ruga, a media and entertainment financial consultant, was approached by the University of Utah library to help fund a special collection about two women who were the only medical professionals in the state willing to care for AIDS patients in that era.
Ruga was just a preschooler when Dr. Kristen Ries and her assistant Maggie Snyder began caring for Utah’s first AIDS patients and was likely unaware of the tragic consequences of the epidemic as it was unfolding. But as a gay man in 2015, he understood the extraordinary courage it must have taken to defy the fear and bigotry that caused many of those patients — especially in Utah’s predominantly Mormon culture — to be cast aside in that dark time.
“I didn’t grow up LDS, but I did grow up in Salt Lake City and I know what it feels like to grow up an outsider who doesn’t belong,” said Ruga. “So, to take my experience and amplify that by watching friends dying on top of being an outsider … I couldn’t believe they were able to create that sense of community.
“What Dr. Ries and Maggie did, besides offering world-class medical care when they couldn’t get it from anyone else, was they created an extended family when many of these people were exiled from the entire community. It is something I yearned for as a kid growing up here,” he explained.
From that perspective, Ruga became determined to share Ries and Snyder’s story with as wide an audience as possible. So he called family friend and noted Utah documentary filmmaker Jenny Mackenzie.
According to Mackenzie, the story struck a familiar chord, though for different reasons.
“I went to high school and college in the 1980s in New York City. My parents were in the theater world: dad was an actor and TV director, mom was a playwright and college professor and they lost many of their friends to the AIDS epidemic early on. They were both very liberal and active politically.”
Following in their footsteps, Mackenzie turned to filmmaking, in particular documentaries that focus on health care and social activism. Ruga’s pitch fit perfectly in her wheelhouse. But, she told him that before making a commitment she needed to meet the subjects.
“We went to their house for tea and I just instantly fell in love with them,” she said.
In addition to sharing their dramatic memories, Mackenzie said Ries and Snyder had kept detailed scrapbooks of the political and social tumult surrounding the AIDS crisis.
“They have about 25 to 30 four-inch, three-ring binders with every single ribbon from the walk, flyers from events, invitations, notes from patients, from patients’ lovers, from patients’ families and newspaper clippings. A lot of our time together was spent getting to know them and diving into this history,” said Mackenzie.
The scrapbooks, especially their cascading pages of obituaries, helped the filmmakers illustrate the desperate circumstances Ries and Snyder and their patients faced.
In the film, Snyder laments, “I counted those deaths for quite a while. When it when it got to be 500 I just couldn’t count anymore, it was too painful.”
Despite the early despair, the film’s central theme is a celebration of Ries and Snyder’s success. Through interviews with former patients and current Utah politicians, the filmmakers underscore their extraordinary compassion and commitment.
The result, “Quiet Heroes,” earned a spot on this year’s Sundance program and will hit home with audiences who lived through the AIDS crisis. It will no doubt revive memories of the disease’s devastating effect on the arts community and the way the gay community rallied to overcome it. But it might surprise many of them to learn that two of that battle’s champions were based right here in Utah.
According to Mackenzie, “In a way, Utah is a character in the film. The conservative monoculture in the 1980s is very significant to this story. The political aspects are so important because history repeats itself and right now we are in a massive crisis for marginalized communities. They continue to see challenges from the current administration and they are very vulnerable.”
Ruga believes the film is more relevant than ever, and carries an important message for his contemporaries in the gay community.
“This is a story about how the community rallied around its own to protect them and I think having that story of hope and resilience will really resonate today. Also, I don’t want AIDS to be forgotten. Transmission rates are flat or on the rise, depending on the demographic and we are not that much closer to a cure than we were 30 years ago, we have great drugs to manage it but we are not good at curing it or preventing it.
“What’s crazy for me is we are talking about things that happened 20-30 years ago, but many of those issues are still unresolved. LGBT equality is not fully realized yet, AIDS is still not cured, we’ve got a healthcare system that still lets people die unnecessarily because of bureaucracy and these were all challenges that Maggie and Kristen faced when they were in practice.”
Sundance Documentary Premiere // Director: Jenny Mackenzie, Co-Directors: Jared Ruga, Amanda Stoddard, Producers: Jenny Mackenzie, Jared Ruga, Amanda Stoddard
- Sunday, Jan. 21 at 6:30 p.m. at the Rose Wagner Auditorium in Salt Lake City
- Tuesday, Jan. 23 at noon at The Egyptian Theatre in Park City
- Friday, Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. at the Holiday Village Cinema 4 in Park City