The “Steps for the Future” film collection about living with HIV and AIDS in Southern Africa are strong, unconventional stories told by the Africans themselves. Some are more focussed on the struggle against the disease than others, some are very personal stories. The diversity in approach, style and format and the love and respect for the depicted persons make watching these films a powerful experience.

Anette Olsen
Script writer, webfilm producer in Safran Film and journalist based in Denmark. Former editor of DOX Magazine (2001-02 and 2004-05).

IT’S MY LIFE. Director: Brian Tilley, South Africa, 75/55 min

It’s My Life by Brian Tilley is the story of Zackie Achmat, a homosexual, HIV-positive AIDS activist and leader of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). Tilley follows Zackie closely but respectfully during five months of shooting. Zackie becomes increasingly weakened by his illness but refuses to take antiretroviral medicine until it is available for everybody in public hospitals and clinics. The medicine is not a cure, but can prolong life for infected persons and help pregnant HIV-positive women and their unborn children. Yet in spite of this fact, the South African government makes no efforts to distribute the medicine in the public health sector. In a telephone conversation at the beginning of the film, Zackie explains his decision not to take medicine to his friends at TAC who fear losing him. At that point in the film we, the viewers, don’t know how ill Zackie really is.

The film is a portrait of a man who is willing to risk his own health and life for a cause. The voiceover of Zackie reading from autobiographical notes gives a subtle picture of a complex person. But it is also a film about a political struggle that is reminiscent of the fight against anti-apartheid. The film is structured around Zackie’s campaigning activities. Zackie’s political struggle parallels his personal struggle against his own illness that ruins his health. Zackie’s doctor tries to convince Zackie that his activism would be more successful if he stayed alive, but Zackie is unwavering.

At the end of the film, we hear the rest of the telephone conversation from the beginning of the film where Zackie explains his decision. Only then do we realize the whole context in which it was taken, and somehow this is when we really understand the consequences of Zackie’s choice. It is a question of life and death not only for Zackie but for all HIV-positive people. Zackie wants the right to life, not only for himself but for every person. If he starts taking medicine, knowing that poor people cannot afford it, he couldn’t look the very people for whom he is fighting in the eye.

Living in a part of the world where nobody is willing to die for a political cause, one cannot but admire this example of integrity and courage.

Before the final credits, we learn that Zackie Achmat is in good health. We also learn that 200,000 South Africans died of HIV-related illnesses during the shooting of the film.

MOTHER TO CHILD. Director: Jane Lipman, South Africa, 40 min

The issue of providing medication to unborn children of HIV-positive mothers is dealt with in Mother to Child by Jane Thandi Lipman. Patience and Pinkie are expectant mothers whom we follow in the last days of pregnancy. Both women are HIV positive and extremely worried about the status of their unborn babies. What will the blood tests show? Like Patience and Pinkie we anxiously await the results, and like them we cry with relief when it is revealed that the blood tests of their babies are negative.

These are strong, emotional scenes, as is the moment when Pinkie discloses her situation to her family.

The film is dramatic in every sense of the word, using a simple structure and sober treatment to bring us into the lives of two women who have become friends, their relation to their boyfriends and families, their thoughts on the future and the risks they are taking by having children who might be infected by HIV.

Patience and Pinkie are fortunate to be among a minor percentage of women who are offered HIV medication during pregnancy and for the baby. This medication minimises the risk of HIV infection from mother to child. Most women, however, never have this option because of government policies. Every third baby is born HIV positive.

A powerful film that – and this is one of the many qualities of the STEPS films – is not afraid to approach and reveal very painful subjects on screen, directly but respectfully.

A MINER’S TALE. Director: Nic Hofmeyr and Gabriel Mondlane, Mozambique/South Africa, 40 min

A Miner’s Tale by Nic Hofmeyr and Gabriel Mondlane is a warm, touching story that deals with the dilemma of being torn between traditional rural and modern urban life. It is told in a light-hearted way and follows a classic narrative structure using a slick editing style. Joachim is an immigrant from Mozambique who works in the gold mines in South Africa. He lives with a junior wife in the city while his senior wife and son back in Mozambique wait for him to visit. Joachim is tested HIV positive, and when he decides to return home to Mozambique after a long absence of thirteen years, he is not sure how to tell his wife that he has a contagious disease.

Somehow the film misses this “climatic” moment we have been prepared for, because the moment of reunion and confrontation between Joachim and his senior wife Rosita is never really shown.

Joachim seeks advice from village elders, and a key scene in the film is a conversation between Joachim and his uncle, who advises him to do what is expected of him: sleep with his wife properly, i.e. without a condom, and have more children. Joachim argues that he should protect his wife against the contagious disease and use a condom. Though the scene seems slightly contrived, it doesn’t miss the point. The whole issue of how to deal with HIV in an environment ruled by traditions is presented here in a nutshell, and it works.

Joachim leaves the village and returns to his urban life without knowing how to reconcile the two worlds he is living in.

DREAMS OF A GOOD LIFE. Director: Bridget Pickering, South Africa, 15 min.

Dreams of a Good Life by Bridget Pickering is a short film. Five women in their twenties and early thirties, all HIV positive, sit together under a tree and talk about their lives and the dreams they had before they got the virus and their relationships to men, family and their children. During the 15 minutes, we experience all kinds of emotions from hope to despair, from laughter to tears.

The film is edited in chapters. The first: the subject of men provokes a lot of giggling and comments. Being HIV positive doesn’t kill the appetite for living or for loving. The desire for men and sex are still there.

Tears flow when the issue of family and children is brought up. “Home is like hell,” a woman says. Another woman was raped during her childhood by her own father, and another woman lost her boyfriend and is left with a child who is HIV positive.

The big question for many of these women, a question that is repeated throughout the STEPS series, is whether one should disclose one’s status as HIV positive or keep it secret for as long as possible. How will lovers, husbands, family and friends react?

Solidarity exists among these women facing the same destiny. Although we only get a glimpse of what they have been through, the cruelty with which the HIV virus can change lives is obvious. The ‘fly-on-the-wall’ recording of the discussions under the tree shows the unfiltered emotions of the women who are living with HIV, who, even if their dreams for the future have disappeared, haven’t lost their sense of humour or the will to carry on.

A RED RIBBON AROUND MY HOUSE. Director: Portia Rankoane, South Africa, 26 min

Another short film dealing with the issue of disclosing one’s HIV positive status is A Red Ribbon Around My House by Portia Rankoane. The heroine of the film, Pinkie, is an outspoken woman who has decided to speak honestly and publicly about the fact that she is HIV positive. The film makes us admire Pinkie and her courage, but it also shows how a mother-daughter relationship is affected by HIV. Like many other young people in South Africa, Ntombi, Pinkie’s teenage daughter, doesn’t want to hear about AIDS, she wants to be like everyone else. In spite of her love for her mother, Pinkie’s bluntness about her illness makes Ntombi uncomfortable. Ntombi has experienced how her friends (including a boyfriend) have deserted her once her mother told them about her HIV status. Pinkie understands her, but she won’t stop talking about AIDS.

The film’s great strength is that the filmmaker gets close to the people she is portraying. The honesty of these two women who confide their thoughts to the camera and speak to each other about an illness that has created a crisis between them and that may tear them apart affects the viewer. Pinkie does not mention death until the end of the film. She is not ready to die, but if she has to go, she has to go. She wants a red ribbon with red lamps to be put around her house so people can see that she died of AIDS.

In the last scenes, we see Pinkie living and enjoying life with her friends, while her voiceover talks about death. As in the other films, we feel we have come close to this person, we know her a little, feel compassion and empathy for her and when death finally and inevitably enters the story, the tragedy makes a powerful impact.

 


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