“It can be a struggle to get health care”: Filmmaker M. H. Murray on bringing the realities of HIV treatment to TIFF
Murray’s debut feature film, I Don’t Know Who You Are, follows a Toronto artist scraping together money for preventative treatment after being sexually assaulted
Toronto filmmaker M. H. Murray’s latest project, I Don’t Know Who You Are, follows Benjamin, a young artist scraping by in Toronto, as he struggles to afford the exorbitant cost of HIV-prevention drugs after being sexually assaulted by a stranger. Caught your interest? You’re not alone—both TIFF screenings have already sold out. For those who didn’t score tickets in advance, we caught up with Murray to talk about the line between fiction and reality, Toronto’s unspoken class divides and the ways our health care system has—and hasn’t—made HIV care properly accessible.
Congratulations on selling out both screenings of your film—and on the first day of ticket sales. How does it feel?
Exciting! But also bittersweet, because there are a lot of people I was hoping would be there who weren’t able to get tickets. I’m like, Who bought them all? It’s been a frantic dash to try to find tickets for the cast and crew, and there just aren’t enough to go around.
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Followers of your work will recognize a few things in this film, namely the main character, Benjamin (Mark Clennon), and some of the set pieces, which also appeared in your 2020 short film, Ghost. What’s the relationship between the two films?
Ghost features the same character, Benjamin, but it’s a different story, about him being ghosted by his lover. Mark is one of my best friends in real life, and that was a kind of a practice round for us. We shot the apartment scenes of both films in his actual apartment, so it was very intimate. I also wanted to push myself as a filmmaker by doing it as a one-day shoot and as a film entirely without dialogue—though I did cheat a little by using text bubbles.
How did Ghost evolve into this film?
After we finished Ghost, the pandemic hit, and the queer horror movie I was supposed to be working on got sidelined. Like a lot of people, I spent the lockdowns having an existential crisis. With the lack of resources in the film industry at that time, I began to realize that, if I was going to make another feature, it needed to be something where I could rely on myself and the people I’d already worked with. I had been sexually assaulted prior to the pandemic, and working with Mark, I submitted an application to the Canada Arts Council to develop a screenplay telling my story.
The main drama of the film revolves around Benjamin being sexually assaulted by a stranger and struggling to access health care that would ward off an HIV infection. How much of it is a true story?
The character of Benjamin is obviously not me—he came out of a collaboration between myself, Mark and Victoria Long, a producer who also plays the character of Lola in the film, a friend of Benjamin’s and a musician in his band. But, while it’s fiction, there’s a lot of myself in there. The logistics of his assault and the struggle that follows are very true to life. What happened to me is in the film. From there, Mark and Victoria helped me filter my story through the character of Benjamin, this cool person who, like a lot of us freelance artists, is always one financial mishap away from having nothing. And yet, he looks great from the outside. No one walking the down the street would be like, “Oh, that person is suffering.” That’s the whole thesis of the film.
What are some of the ways you bring that theme out in the film?
The sound design features a lot of streetcars and GO trains going by because, when you live in a city, it’s never fully silent. Even if your life is falling apart, everyone else is just going about their own lives. It’s an interesting conundrum where you can still carve out a beautiful reality for yourself amid the chaos, but you’re also faced with this brutal bureaucratic system. Benjamin has to beg a pharmacist to waive the fees for his HIV medication, but he’s the tenth person that pharmacist has seen today. I’ll note that all the health care workers in the film are real health care workers.
Yeah. The pharmacist is real, and we shot his scenes in his real pharmacy in Victoria Park. I was like, “Um, you know Benjamin has to jump over the counter and knock things over for this scene?” And he gave us free rein of the place. Cheryl Wagner, who played an ER doctor, has been working with HIV and AIDS patients since the ’80s. Randy Davis, who plays Carlos the HIV testing worker in the film, runs a clinic in Barrie and is campaigning to make post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) more accessible. Hopefully we can spread awareness about how PEP works, since a lot of queer people don’t even know about it.
Many of the conversations between characters are skipped over or just alluded to—but the medical processes are laid out in explicit detail. How come?
I didn’t want the film to feel like a PSA or anything. We set out to make a fictional character study. But I hope it’s also a film that people can learn from. It’s a fine line. We shot so much stuff in the HIV clinic and ER scenes. But, thinking back to my experience, when you’re in that moment, there’s so much information being thrown at you, you don’t remember half of it. You’re in turmoil. I drew on my experience working with Mark in Ghost to ask, What is the really important thing in this scene? And that led to more quiet moments, like Mark just sitting with a friend in silence or looking into a lover’s eyes, not needing to say, “I love you.”
In his blurb describing the film, TIFF programmer Norm Wilner calls it a “tour through the city’s unspoken class system.” Would you agree?
It’s interesting, because a lot of people have told me this film makes Toronto seem like a cold, dark place. And that was not my intention! I think it’s just a by-product of how the city feels right now. We shot it in early 2021, when the sense of pandemic dread was still there. But I love Toronto. I’m from Mississauga, and I’ve lived in Parkdale and the Beaches. I put Benjamin’s friend Agnes and her well-off husband in a fancy condo—actually the Shangri-La Hotel—because it was the perfect juxtaposition to Benjamin’s apartment, which is filled with his art, plants and personality. It’s alive, whereas the Shangri-La is just dead in the sky.
In that scene, Benjamin goes to his friends asking for money since he can’t afford the cost of PEP drugs, which are almost $1,000. What does the film say about the state of health care for HIV?
There are so many different resources in the city, but they aren’t integrated well, and that causes problems for people who don’t have money. Instead of there being a social safety net, each individual has to sort out their own care with what resources they have. If this had happened to Agnes, who is wealthier, she would know somebody who knows somebody, and they’d get help. But, when that isn’t possible, it’s easy to get stuck. If the various parts of the health care system—the ER, the pharmacy, the HIV testing clinic—were better connected, and people had more information, then in theory, the situation Benjamin was in, struggling to get health care, wouldn’t exist.
What do you want people to take away from the film?
For anyone who watches it to think, “Okay, maybe I will go get tested” or “Maybe I don’t need to be so scared to talk about this with this person.” Communication is so difficult, but in the film, if Benjamin had just communicated with a certain character, he would have been able to avoid so much of the bullshit he dealt with. In life, we push people away because we aren’t sure who they are.
Hey, that’s the title of the film! What does it mean?
It’s taken from a song that Mark wrote, which is on some level about a person figuring out who he is and who people around him are. But, on a more concrete level, it’s about being a victim of sexual assault by a stranger and not knowing anything about them. From my situation, it added a lot of stress, because you don’t know their HIV status or if they do this all the time or anything. Yet they’ve so dramatically changed your life. I remember sitting and struggling with what to call the movie, and I started writing a monologue, which didn’t make the final cut, where Benjamin says, “I could walk into this person at the doctor’s office one day, and they might not even recognize me. But I’d recognize them.” It’s that spooky feeling.
For the unlucky masses who didn’t snipe a TIFF ticket, where can they see the film?
It’s going to be competing in Calgary for the Best Emerging Narrative awards, and then we’re going to VIFF in Vancouver. We have a distribution deal with Vortex Media, so we’ll be having a cinematic release sometime in the near future. It’s coming to a cinema near you—eventually.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.