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A mother, a son, and a survivor’s heart: A story that waited over 30 years to be told

Rita Giordano – The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

The man looks straight at the camera. There is no music, no props. Just him, his eyes, and his voice.

“It’s December 1991, and today I told my mother I was diagnosed with HIV,” he says. “Perhaps,” he continues, “I shouldn’t have.”

This is a story that took over 30 years for actor and filmmaker Lary Campbell, now 68, to tell. That he lived to tell it is no small thing. All of this could have been lost to silence.

But next week, it will be heard.

“My Mother, My Self” will be shown at the Nice International Film Festival which is being held Nice, France, from May 13-15. The film and Campbell are nominated in five categories: best short film, best original screenplay, best actor, best director and best editing.

It is a quiet but powerful film about the relationship between a mother and son, as well as the legacy of trauma. Lurking in shadows are the early years of the AIDS epidemic, a time when fragile people were left to cope and often die alone by their families and society.

Campbell, who now lives in Magnolia, New Jersey, grew up in North Philadelphia. His father, James, died when he was 10, and his mother, Elizabeth, struggled to raise five children on survivors’ benefits.

“We grew up on powdered milk because we couldn’t afford milk,” Campbell said. “My sister remembers neighbors leaving canned goods on our porch.”

Campbell said his mother “didn’t show her emotions. It was rough for her. Absolutely, But back then, you didn’t go to therapy.” Although she was a Catholic, she wouldn’t even go to confession, Campbell said. “She was not going to discuss feelings. She was not going to discuss personal stuff.”

She had reasons to keep up her emotional guard, Campbell said. She brought her mother down when she tried to kill herself by hanging. Campbell’s mother confided in one of his siblings, but never discussed it with him.

But Campbell found his own outlet in the theater from an early age. At Cardinal Dougherty High School, he took a filmmaking class and started making his own movies. His mother discouraged his aspirations.

“She would say stuff like, ‘This isn’t practical. Why do you think you’re going to make it? These people are special.’ What mother doesn’t think their child is special?”

Yet she was supportive in other ways. When Campbell told his mother he was gay, she announced she was calling a family meeting with all his siblings. “Which was incredible,” he said. “She was very accepting.”

Campbell started working in home care and nursing, and lived in Los Angeles and New York City.

In the 1980s, in Manhattan, he was caring for patients who were mysteriously very sick and dying; the doctors didn’t know what was wrong with them. Some called it the “gay cancer” or GRID — Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. When a hospital in Upper Manhattan was looking for people to staff its first AIDS unit, Campbell said people were reluctant to work there. He was the second to get hired and worked there for 10 years, until 1996.

During that time, he wrote an AIDs-related play called “Robby” that was produced off-Broadway. He also witnessed the horrors of the AIDS epidemic.

“We were taking care of people our own age. I would see people that I dated,” he said.

Sometimes, parents would come from far off states and demand the hospital do something to save their dying sons.

It was during this time, tending to AIDS patients, that Campbell learned he was HIV positive.

“I had an insensitive doctor,” he recalled. “He told me over the phone, rather than bring me into the office, while I was at work. So I had to go take care of people and imagine myself in the bed being taken care of. It was very, very difficult.”

For many back then, that diagnosis was a death sentence. But Campbell said he would learn he was among a very fortunate, rare few. He is what is an HIV elite controller — one of the less than 1% of individuals whose bodies can control the virus replication using their own immune system in the absence of antiretroviral therapy.

But he didn’t know that when he called his mother to tell her he was HIV positive. The rest of that story is best for Campbell’s film to tell.

In the decades that followed, he studied film at the New School and worked as a nurse with psychiatric patients at Pennsylvania Hospital’s Hall Mercer crisis center for 20 years until he retired in 2019. He also earned a certificate in LGBTQ health care from Drexel University and lectured health professionals on how to better serve those patients.

Over those years, Campbell has seven films. The latest, “Gary and Randy,” is still in production.

Except for some comedic shorts, “My Mother, My Self” is the only film where Campbell is also the star. Memorizing the lines — essentially a monologue — and performing something so intimate was not easy.

“The instinct is to avoid what’s personally painful rather than to confront it,” he said.

As both a witness to and survivor of the AIDS epidemic, he also feels it’s important to add to the body of history and memory of that time.

“Here is something that was a serious trauma to everyone that experienced it, but a lot of kids who have been brought up since don’t know what it was like,” he said. “It dies with us when we die.”

While some of his other work has earned prizes, he said he’s honored that this film in particular is nominated for awards.

“My mother was always saying I wasn’t good enough, that I just didn’t have the talent. So it’s an affirmation — things that I believed about myself, that I can make a good film,” Campbell said. ” … It would be ironic if I win something, and it’s all about her.”

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(c)2024 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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