Pandemic: Facing AIDS

Posted: 18 June 2003

Home Box Office (HBO), the premium television programming division of Time Warner Entertainment Company, has recently launched a new five-part documentary series in an attempt to remind us of the seriousness of the AIDS plague by sharing personal and compelling stories of individuals around the world who are living with it.

Around forty million people worldwide are infected with HIV, and 24 million people have already died from AIDS. Narrated by Elton John, Pandemic: Facing AIDS, was produced by filmmaker Rory Kennedy who spent weeks traveling through Thailand, Uganda, Russia, Brazil, and India looking to illustrate the scope of the crisis and associate it with real people. The project was funded by the Gates Foundation.

"AIDS is such a very, very sad issue, mostly because it's entirely preventable," said Kennedy. "I really feel very strongly that we have the tools to significantly reduce the transmission rates of AIDS in the world. We also have the drugs to treat people who are HIV-positive. The fact that we are not doing everything we can is unacceptable."

To research her project, Kennedy contacted AIDS activists, health care providers, and international AIDS organizations to direct her to local service providers. "Through those, we identified individuals who were willing to speak with us," she said.

Culturally, it was a stretch for many. "Just the act of being in the film for many people was an enormous act of bravery," Kennedy said. "In Thailand and India, the stigma of AIDS is really pervasive. People said to me that the stigma was worse to them than the physical destruction of their bodies."

In Thailand, Kennedy, through a translator, convinced 27-year-old Lek to allow the final stages of her life to be filmed. Rejected by her family, the former prostitute is living in a Buddhist monastery. In the same compound, there is a crematorium for AIDS victims who have died.

In India, Kennedy found Nagaraj, a former truck driver, who takes the bold step of revealing his illness to a village community that may ostracize him as a result. His pregnant, HIV-positive wife, Bhanu, decides to ignore her family's objections and stay with her husband. Together, they attempt to prevent the transmission of HIV to their baby.

Not all the films' stories are sad ones. "It was important to show hope," Kennedy said. In Brazil, she found a young gay man, Alex, on his deathbed, who is then granted access to a free government program that provides comprehensive drug therapy. "He is now going to school, he is socially active and out of bed and working. He is really having a very full life with family and friends. It's a positive story about what a government can do."

Nan Richardson, Director of the Pandemic project with Kennedy, said "the films are driven by characters and stories and can only include so much that is informational."

She added that Pandemic is being accompanied by a multimedia outreach campaign that includes a website (see link below) where visitors are instructed on how to take action by contacting political leaders, volunteering at various organizations, or donating money. The series also has an educational component: Workbooks, teachers' guides, and a 42-minute condensed version of the films have already been distributed to 800,000 high schools, middle schools, and community groups nationwide.

A traveling art exhibit features more than 100 works by artists and photographers (including Annie Leibovitz and Robert Mapplethorpe) that will "reflect the entire history of the epidemic in images," Richardson said. Pandemic: Imaging AIDS will open at Brown University in 2004.

"Our message throughout the whole project is that this is a preventable disease," Richardson said. "We have the knowledge, understanding, and ability to stop this epidemic. Everybody can play a part in contributing."

Sources: PlanetWire, The Boston Globe and IPPF.

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To order the films and find out more about the project, vist the website: Pandemic: Facing AIDS