While there’s a tendency in English-speaking countries to only ever consider how certain events affected us, of course they often affect other places too. That’s very true of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Most documentaries and films tend to concentrate on what happened in the US, but the three-part mini-series Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves takes us to Stockholm, Sweden in the early 80s.
Rasmus (Adam Palsson) is a young man from the middle of nowhere who heads to Stockholm to check out the bright lights. Staying with his aunt he soon immerses himself in the gay world, meeting other people and having fun. Then there’s Benjamin (Adam Lundgren), who comes from a very strict family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. When he knocks on the door of one of Rasmus’ gay friends, hoping to spread the word of his religion, the man immediately clocks that Ben is gay, something the young man thought nobody could tell. Ben slowly begins to open up and eventually starts a relationship with Rasmus.
Things aren’t perfect though, as while Benjamin just wants a simple monogamous relationship and has no intention of coming out to his parents, Rasmus feels people should be out and proud, and he also wants to have sex with other people too. Then they hear about a ‘gay plague’ and people around them start getting sick.
From the very beginning, Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves lets us know this isn’t always going to be an easy ride. The title comes from a line of dialogue in the first few minutes where a nurse is informed not to touch AIDS patients without full-on safety gear. Throughout the running time we move between the young men figuring out their lives amid the promise of early 80s Stockholm gay scene and Rasmus lying in a hospital bed suffering the horrific, agonising effects of AIDS.
It’s an effective structure, contrasting the hope and possibility of gay people in a society that’s slowly being more accepting of different sexualities, with the devastating impact the AIDS virus has. The three hour-long episodes are helped enormously by some great performances. Adam Palsson is excellent as the brash Rasmus, although it’s Adam Lundgren who acts as the real heart of the series. As in previous gay themed fare such as the film She Monkeys and the excellent short My Name Is Love, he has a wonderful innocence and sense of empathy that shines through and pulls you into his characters.
The supporting cast is also very good, as is the recreation of 1980s life. It has a nice specificity both in its visual style and how it shows an intimate knowledge of the areas of Stockholm that were popular with gay people in the early 80s, from the place where the bars were to where people went cruising.
It’s not always an easy watch, as the series doesn’t shy away from the horrible reality of the end stages of AIDS. However that’s as it should be. For those who weren’t around at the time, it’s easy to think the AIDS crisis was a bad thing without realising what it was actually like for those living through it. As the series shows, these were people still somewhat dislocated from society and often estranged from their own biological families. They had built their identity and new families amongst one another and then had to watch those closest to them dying ugly, agonising deaths, often wondering if/when the same would happen to them. They also knew that if it had primarily been happening to straight people, the reaction would have been a full scale emergency rather than it becoming a political football and ignored by many.
Don’t Ever Wipe Tears was a bit of a sensation when it first aired in Sweden in 2012, and there was even talk of it being recut into a film for distribution in other countries. There hasn’t been much news about that recently, but fortunately in the UK we’ve got the whole thing, first airing on BBC4 and now released on DVD. It’s well worth taking a look at for a very well made, acted and observed look at the AIDS crisis and 80s gay life, beyond the places that are normally concentrated on.
Overall Verdict: Sometimes a tough watch but always rewarding. Thanks to some very good acting and careful observation, this is an excellent look at Scandinavian gay life in the early 80s, as well as at the devastating impact of AIDS.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac