Doctor's video diary charts AIDS death

July 01, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

If you want to see how good and socially responsible TV can be when it tries, watch "The Broadcast Tapes of Dr. Peter" at 8 tonight on cable's HBO.

Dr. Peter is Dr. Peter Jepson-Young, a Canadian physician who at age 33 found out he had AIDS.

In 1990, Dr. Jepson-Young started taping a weekly TV "diary" offering insights, both as doctor and patient, into what it meant to have AIDS. His weekly reports aired on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's (CBC) evening newscasts until his death last fall.

"The Broadcast Tapes of Dr. Peter" is a one-hour documentary produced by HBO using those CBC reports. Lyrical, moving, funny, sad and spiritual are some of the adjectives that describe the documentary.

It opens with a bank of video screens each filled with Dr. Jepson-Young's face. The images come from one of the first tapes he recorded.

Dr. Jepson-Young is talking to the camera about his diagnosis. He looks young, fit, trim and handsome. There's a sense of vitality and fun, especially when he stumbles over what he's trying to say, breaks into laughter and turns the "take" into a blooper.

But, then, the screens fill with the face of Dr. Jepson-Young from one of his last broadcasts in 1992. The healthy, black hair is almost all gone. His face is ravaged.

"I hope I've been able to help and educate people through television," he says. "It's been a lot of fun doing the diaries -- quite rewarding. A lot of changes have taken place over the last two years. And, when I look back, I realize just how many significant changes have been captured on tape."

While it is depressing to see the physical decline, the focus of what follows that opening is the emotional and spiritual journey Dr. Jepson-Young took viewers on through his diary. And it is an uplifting trip.

In the first segments, he's still very much the man of medicine talking about his illness in the matter-of-fact language of the diagnostician.

"In September of '89, I noticed a subtle change in the vision of my right eye," Dr. Jepson-Young says, looking into the camera during one of his early segments. "I saw the ophthalmologist that week. He told me I was having a viral retinitis.

"The virus is a very common one -- something most people have been exposed to. It stays in your system. And, when you have a normal immune system, it's not a problem.

"But when your immune system is as screwed up as is mine, the virus can manifest itself in several ways -- one of which is an infection of the retina.

"Within six weeks I lost the vision in my left eye. . . ."

By the end of the hour, he is speaking in the language of prayer and poetry.

Dr. Jepson-Young composed the following "affirmation of life" one day on a visit to the seashore videotaped for his TV diary. It was read by his lover at Dr. Jepson-Young's memorial service:

"I accept and absorb all the strength of the Earth to keep my body hard and strong. I accept and absorb all the energy of the sun to keep my mind sharp and bright. I accept and absorb all the life force of the ocean to cleanse my body and bring me life. . . .

"I believe God to be all these elements and the force that unites them. From these elements I have come. To these elements I shall return. For the energy that is me will never be lost."

HBO was responsible for TV's first great effort to help viewers understand and care about AIDS with "Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt" in 1989. "The Broadcast Tapes of Dr. Peter" is just as innovative and powerful a production. This is a documentary that people will be returning to 10, 20 and 30 years from now to understand AIDS and what it was like living and dying with the disease.

Additional play dates are: July 6, 11, 16, 21 and 27.

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