If you’ve ever had the misfortune of traveling with people who think the world revolves around them, you’ll be well prepared for Dianne Griffin and Tobi Solvang’s egregiously self-indulgent White Hotel. Ostensibly an exploration of the AIDS crisis in Africa, this doc follows the filmmakers on a 1993 trek through Eritrea as they attempt to reveal the hypocrisy of a restrictive culture that tacitly encourages the spread of HIV. Unfortunately, they focus so obsessively on their own dilemmas that the health care disaster they set out to expose gets all but overlooked.
The project starts badly when Griffin’s estranged, alcoholic father dies in a freak accident shortly before she and Solvang leave for Africa. Griffin refuses to postpone her departure to attend Dad’s funeral, and the decision becomes a source of anxiety for her throughout the film. This thread isn’t without emotional impact, but the more Griffin dwells on her unresolved feelings (in relentless, psychobabble voice-over), the less sympathetic she seems. Meanwhile, Solvang has unprotected sex with one of their hired drivers, and her potential HIV infection from the liaison motivates White Hotel‘s preachy second half. The duo’s hubris is particularly galling in light of their subject matter and the impoverished, war-torn setting.
The patience and quiet resolve of the Eritreans further highlight Griffin and Solvang’s obliviousness, and the filmmakers’ habit of mugging condescendingly while conducting interviews doesn’t help either. The insights they do manage to uncover seem purely accidental. In the end you wish they’d taken the relationship between forbidden homosexuality, female circumcision, and AIDS in Africa as seriously as they take themselves.
Carl Seaton’s languid One Week offers a more mature study of the stigma of AIDS. Five days shy of his wedding, twentysomething Chicagoan Varon Thomas (cowriter Kenny Young) discovers that a former lover may have given him HIV. His self-defeating attempts to tell his bride-to-be, Kiya (Saadiqa Muhammad), about the condition are by turns whimsical and painful, and although Seaton rarely does more than point the camera at his cast, they show an easy chemistry that’s rare for a low-budget indie effort. Eric Lane, as Varon’s hair-trigger roommate Tyco, is especially versatile. Best of all, One Week mitigates its gimmicky predictability and de rigueur uplift by resisting the lazy sentimentality of most AIDS dramas—White Hotel included.