Last Friday on 22 August 2014, the students of the BA (Hons) Film attended the screening of I Hugged the Berlin Patient without any prior knowledge as to who the Berlin Patient actually is. Before the screening, students were greeted by the lauded documentary’s director, Edgar Tang, who at first glance appeared affable yet charmingly soft-spoken.
Little did we know that our impression of him would take a 180-degree turn as his true eccentric and exciting personality slowly unravelled before us as the screening progressed.
The patient, who is introduced in the beginning of the film as Timothy Ray Brown, is the first person in the entire world to be cured of HIV. Brown, an American living in Germany at that time, was henceforth called “The Berlin Patient”, after the city in which he received a stem-cell treatment that rendered him clear of the disease.
The cinéma vérité film documents Tang’s arduous pursuit of Brown all the way to Berlin, as he starts off with a limited amount of contacts and information. As the film progresses, he eventually reveals the comedic side to him in his desperate attempts to find Brown, from unabashedly walking around the streets of Berlin with a makeshift signboard asking “Do you know who the Berlin Patient is?” in both English and German, to randomly breaking out into a dance in the middle of a street, to his comical encounters with unknowing strangers merely passing by.
One discovery he made was that the majority of the strangers he approached had never heard of the Berlin Patient before. Nevertheless, his amiable nature and determination enabled him to establish a few connections to Brown via his vast network of friends that he constructed along the way.
There were also some intimate moments in the film where we were given an insight into the personal life of Tang, as he does some self-reflection along the way. The 38-year old, who is a cancer survivor, was able to relate and feel a connection to Brown’s journey and that was probably one of the main driving forces to his spirited pursuit to meet the man himself.
During his time in Berlin, he managed to meet Gero Hütter, the doctor who is credited for curing Brown using the stem cell transplant method, which at that time, was unheard of. Unfortunately, that was the closest he could get to Timothy Brown and we were able to sympathise with him as we had been following him on his journey the entire time. Just when he was about to give up his pursuit, his luck took a turn for the better when he discovers that Brown would be giving a speech at an event in Amsterdam. Through his now well-established persistence, he manages to arrange for an exclusive face-to-face interview with him.
We were tickled by Tang’s bashfulness upon seeing Brown from afar, as well as his comment about resembling himself to a stalker. Furthermore, we were able to feel Tang’s excitement and relief when he finally got to meet the Berlin Patient himself after a long and tireless pursuit.
In the Q&A session, Tang mentioned that much like the essence of the film itself, the idea of making this documentary with the help of his friend, Dzul Sungit, was entirely organic and spontaneous. Although it took him a long time to make sense out of “a bunch of random unplanned footage” and turn it into a feature documentary, it is still a feat worth applauding. One takeaway from the seminar for the students is definitely Tang’s advice to embrace things that are out of our comfort zone, as such respite is something that the Singaporeans audience would be able to appreciate.
The title of the film is a giveaway; we all know that Tang managed to meet the Berlin Patient in the end. Nevertheless, the students still thoroughly enjoyed the seminar as they were involved in the journey, along with Tang through his highest and lowest points, to find the underdog. And when we eventually do, we all felt the same soaring sense of triumph. We did not get to see Tang literally hug the Berlin Patient, but we all managed to feel the metaphorical hug upon seeing Brown and finding out about his humble intentions to spread awareness about his HIV cure activism.
All in all, the film ultimately conveys a message of hope through Tang and Brown’s unwavering conviction and dedication to their cause. Our students definitely learnt something significant from the film as they were given an insight to documentary filmmaking in Singapore, as well as a few afterthoughts about their own journeys to becoming filmmakers that inspire others, just like how Tang inspired them. I Hugged the Berlin Patient is a testament to Tang’s character as much as it is a testament to the courage and resilience of Timothy Brown. The film weaves the auteur’s personality in with the rest of the film so seamlessly. That being said, The Puttnam School of Film, in a show of gratitude, ‘hugs’ the man who hugged the Berlin Patient.
Visit the website: http://www.berlinpatientfilm.com/
Follow his progress on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/berlinpatientfilm