“Love in a Time of HIV”

December 1st marks the 21st Annual World AIDS Day.  Life for those diagnosed with the virus has changed tremendously since the first case or AIDS was reported in 1981.  Then, a diagnosis had vastly different ramifications than today. Yet with over 33.4 million people around the globe infected with the virus, and no cure, the impact of    HIV is no less overwhelming.

Beth Jones and Nicky Lankester have directed a one-hour documentary, Love in a Time of HIV, premiering on Showtime and repeating throughout the month of December.  The film explores three separate histories.  As Jones wrote me via e-mail, “We wanted to look at the subject of HIV/AIDS in the light of people living with it, rather than dying from it.”  After doing extensive research on the subject, they came up with numerous powerful narratives.  The final choice was predicated not only upon the individual accounts, but also on the willingness of the subjects to open their lives to the cinéma vérité access that was needed.

The profiles are set in New York City, South Africa, and London.  The heartbeat of each locale is captured through the cinematography and exterior shots.  As Jones said, “The city in which someone lives can’t help but be a character in their own personal story.  We wanted to show what their lives are like on a daily basis, and the place in which they live is a huge part of that.”

Susan and Christina Rodriguez, mother and daughter, are featured in the first segment.  They are two of the 100,000 people living in New York City with HIV.  Christina, 16, was born with HIV and was diagnosed when she was 3.  In 1995, when her mother tested positive, 70,000 people in New York City had died from the disease.  Three years after she learned that she had been infected by her husband (who died in 1996), Susan founded SMART University, an organization to support women living with HIV/AIDS.  Her goal was to enable women to “take ownership of their own health.”  As Susan explains, the prognosis for those who were sick in 1996 was a “death sentence.”  Now, people with HIV can expect a normal life span if they are rigorous about following their medication regime.

Christina talks about how HIV has affected her life, as well as her plans for college and future relationships.  She is already proactive in spreading the word that “safe sex is the best sex.”  Christina and a group of friends hand out condoms at the New York Port Authority while the voice-over pronounces that for 13 – 29 year olds, HIV infection rates are on the rise.

“It requires a special person to be in a relationship with someone who is HIV positive,” says Susan. In a life devoted to promoting HIV awareness, her organization’s most important message for affected women is, “You need to learn to love yourself.”

The portion in South Africa begins with a clip of aspiring singer, 25-year-old Tender Mavundla, performing on the country’s popular Idols show.  In 2007, she reached the ranks of the four final contestants. Living with HIV for eight years, Tender decided to go public about her health.  Two weeks later, she was voted off the show.

When Tender visits her hometown, 40 percent of the population has HIV.  Her older sister is infected, and she worries about her 17-year-old sister, who is leading the type of lifestyle that got Tender sick. Tender reveals that when she left home at 16 to pursue a singing career, the music industry was “a playing field for HIV/AIDS.”

Although Tender risked her life to bring a pregnancy to term, her premature child died shortly after birth.  Unable to give birth again, Tender visits an adoption center in Johannesburg.  Many of the infants have been abandoned because of their HIV status, and may not find homes.  She questions out loud, “I don’t know how the next generation is going to be built.”

The camera follows Tender as she tells her new boyfriend that she has HIV, and when she meets with an Idols judge at Sony BMG to discuss her future in the music industry.  She is living each day to the fullest.

Lastly, we are introduced to Andrew, who lives a few hours outside of London.  A hemophiliac, he was infected by tainted blood when he was five.  In the late 1970s and 1980s, most of the Factor VIII replacement blood (which is essential for blood clotting) in the United Kingdom was contaminated.  Andrew was told about his disease when he was 12, and at 18, doctors said he had two weeks to live.  However, newly developed AIDS drugs saved his life.  Of the original 1250 hemophiliacs in the United Kingdom, 75 percent of those people have died…at a rate of twelve per year.

The movie follows him as he and his wife, Michelle, try to safely conceive a child. They met at a weekend for people who had lost loved ones to AIDS.  Michelle’s brother was also a hemophiliac.  They are filmed as they take part in a program, funded by the government, for the pioneering technique of “sperm washing.”  Ninety children in the UK have been born from this process.  At the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, Andrew’s sperm is separated into components to “wash the sperm free from non-sperm cells” to protect his uninfected wife.  Michelle then undergoes intrauterine insemination.  They are repeatedly unsuccessful.  Andrew admits that he is angry, saying, “I just want to be able to have my own child.”

When we see them at the next consultation, the couple is told that a cycle of In Vitro Fertilization, where Michelle’s eggs are united with Andrew’s washed sperm, has a 40 percent chance of success.  Their doctor is confident about their prospects.

Andrew laments that HIV/AIDS has become “a forgotten illness.” Jones agrees.  She makes clear, “We need to start talking about it [HIV/AIDS] in a different way.  Of course there is a dialogue going on in the science and health communities, but perhaps not so much on the streets.   She concludes, “Hopefully, this film will give people an idea of what it is live to live with HIV today.”

This article originally appeared on the website cultureID.

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