The question “Does documentary actually change anything?” is frequently raised, but difficult to answer. There are concrete examples of docs that have re-opened a court case and got an unjustly convicted person released. But it is much more difficult to measure the impact of documentaries on personal attitudes. Therefore a recently completed Steps Impact Study of the Steps for the Future collection from 2001 is very interesting reading by using various methods to do just that. In addition to the study, a documentary has been made that also deals with the effect of the films.

Steps for the Future is a collection of documentary films about living with HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa. It is a large-scale international co-production including films of different lengths made by southern African filmmakers, with input and tutoring provided by international professionals. The films have been broadcast on television all over the world, as well as in the region, but just as importantly the films have been – and still are – touring ‘facilitated community screenings’ in the southern region of Africa. The Steps Impact Study and the film Ask Me I am Positive by Teboho Edkins deal with the effect of these community screenings, the largest project of its kind ever.

Wide-angle Documentary Concept 

The success of the ‘Steps’ films is linked to the collection’s basic concept that the films should be more than documentaries. The two initiators of the project, producer Don Edkins (Day Zero, South Africa) and executive producer Iikka Vehkalahti (YLE, Finland), planned a full media and communication strategy to encourage people to talk openly about HIV/AIDS.

The approach they used in addressing the serious topic was expressed in a key sentence: “Actually, life is a beautiful thing”, stressing the importance of showing that you can live quite normally with HIV. This was important as HIV+ people are highly discriminated against and isolated in southern Africa, which in turn discourages people from taking the HIV tests. It was also important that the films were personal stories rather than didactic, in order to reach people on an emotional level by identifying with the characters. The films were to be made by local filmmakers in order to facilitate local contact, and international tutors were brought in to secure a high level of professionalism.

The basic film-distribution concept was to parallel television broadcasts with ‘facilitated community screenings’ to reach more people and offer them a chance to get answers to any questions the films might raise. This outreach strategy meant dubbing the films in fifteen local languages to make them accessible to illiterates.

The Steps Impact Study is based on a survey of several community screenings in South Africa, Lesotho and Mozambique. Before the screenings, a baseline questionnaire was handed out to gauge what people actually knew about HIV/AIDS (how the disease is transmitted and spread and how it can be prevented). Discussions after the screenings were recorded and analysed, and the research team conducted follow-up interviews with audience members one or two weeks after the screenings to measure the long-term impact and also talked to people who did not see the film, but had been told about it by friends, family neighbours, etc. The report identifies the core issues surrounding HIV/AIDS in the region and takes examples from the discussions and draws some conclusions on the impact.

The film Ask Me I Am Positive follows a mobile-cinema tour of one of the films in which three of the protagonists travel with the film and talk to audience members afterwards.

Encouraging Disclosure

"Ask Me I Am Positive" Teboho Edkins
“Ask Me I Am Positive” Teboho Edkins

The report and the film both back the thesis that a positive approach to the topic and the personal stories is crucial to the effect. The report repeatedly emphasises that it is more important to change personal attitudes to HIV/AIDS than just bombard viewers with information and that the films succeed in this respect. People who are HIV+ are generally seen as bad and dangerous to be with, and because no one wants to become isolated, people refrain from taking the tests even if they suspect they are infected.

One audience member reveals that if he had tested positive before the screening, he might have committed suicide, as he wouldn’t have known how to deal with it. But after seeing the film Red Ribbon, he was no longer afraid of being tested and had the courage to disclose, like those in the films. From this response and many others the report concludes that “knowing there are people leading productive lives who have the support of their friends and family is so important and creates the conditions under which testing is more likely.”

Personal Stories

Another prejudice with which the struggle against HIV/AIDS in the region has to deal is the belief that the disease doesn’t exist at all, and one thing that makes people sceptical is that persons with HIV+ who haven’t yet developed AIDS, look perfectly healthy, i.e., the disease isn’t apparent. To deal with this misconception, the study shows that the personal stories proved crucial. The films are actually eliminating taboos by letting ‘normal people’ speak openly about their disease and how they feel about having it. For most of the audience members, it is groundbreaking to see real people speak openly about it. And the effect is even greater in the cases where the facilitators are characters from the films. In *Ask Me I am Positive, an audience member asks one of the protagonists directly if he is just pretending to be HIV+ in order to get a job with the film, as he looks perfectly healthy. One of the other protagonists answers that all the money in the world couldn’t make him pretend he was HIV+. The Steps Impact Study also concludes that audiences are happy to see real-life stories and afterwards talk about the subjects as ‘innocent’ and ‘normal’ people’ with whom they can identify, and see that they are not ‘bad’.

A Human Face

The report reveals how the facilitated screenings are a key instrument in fulfilling the purpose of the films. They serve many purposes, both redressing the lack of accurate information currently in circulation about HIV/AIDS, and also – especially in focus groups – giving individuals a chance to talk to someone about their serious, acute problems.

Both the report and the film have many examples of audience members who ask crucial questions that reveal how widespread misinformation about HIV/AIDS really is: “Do you get aids from sex or does it just fall upon you?”; “Is it safer to use two condoms instead of one?”, etc.

A film about two infected women who give birth to their children is screened at a prenatal care clinic. The two women willingly talk to other mothers-to-be in the same situation which gives them a chance to share their concerns for the very first time. This contact helps the women understand the importance of testing for the sake of the unborn child (who has a great chance of being saved if the mother is given a specific medicine).

The report concludes that “facilitated sessions aim to end the stigma that people attach to people living with HIV. The films give a human face to the disease and help ordinary people to identify with people who are already suffering from the physical consequences of AIDS, and the social death they often experience when they are rejected by family and community.”

Another major finding of the study is the importance of what happens after the films. The interviews suggest that the people who saw the films discussed them with their friends and family and in many cases encouraged them to actively deal with it, spreading the message to more people. The main goal of the Steps collection, i.e., to get people to talk openly about HIV/AIDS, has been reached and is still being fulfilled. Steps is now training community groups in how to use documentary in their work and to act as facilitators at screenings – in ten countries across Southern Africa.

Steps Impact Study 2003

Researcher/Author: Dr Susan Levine
Ask Me I Am Positive
South Africa, 2003, 50 min.
Director: Teboho Edkins
Day Zero Film & Video

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