How did we get from AIDS to HIV?
A brilliant new documentary chronicles the early years of the AIDS epidemic to now. Stephen A. Russell talks to the film’s producer Daniel Brace.
The Outrage Justice HIV Film Festival sits at the heart of the cultural program attached to the 20th International AIDS Conference, hosted in Melbourne this month. Aimed at challenging injustices and criminalisation surround people living with HIV/AIDS, it has been curated by Edwin J Bernard, co-ordinator of global advocacy hub the HIV Justice Network.
“I wanted to pull together films from all over the world, with director Q&As and panel discussions, so it becomes more than just the film itself; it’s an impetus for people to talk and ask questions,” Bernard says. “Film moves people in a way that other media can’t.”
One of the centrepieces of the festival is Transmission: The Journey From AIDS To HIV, a new documentary by Swedish director Staffan Hildebrand. He’s been charting the course of HIV/AIDS since the outbreak of the epidemic, first visiting Australia in the late 80s. This new film includes archival footage of interviews conducted then combined with new material shot in Australia and Cambodia. Tying it all together are the voices of two young people living with HIV, Sebastian in Australia and Dalish in Cambodia.
Transmission’s producer Daniel Brace, who is also communications manager at Living Positive Vitoria, assisted Hildebrand on the ground in Australia and with the final stages, pulling the documentary together. He says one of the most positive outcomes is that they have been able to re-interview people Hildebrand spoke to almost 30 years previously. “It was really nice to see quite a few people were still alive, and some of them have even retired.”
One of the key talking heads is Professor John Dwyer, whose early career focused on HIV/AIDS and who was awarded an Order of Australia in 1991 for his services to medicine. “He dealt with the early AIDS epidemic, and then with the introduction of ARV [anti-retroviral drugs] and how that really changed everything, so it was really interesting to talk to those people who were there in the hopeless days when there wasn’t any light.”
Julie Bates was at the forefront of the fight against AIDS in Australia. A sex worker, she’s now an advocate for the rights of people working in the industry. A founder of the Australian Prostitutes Collective and the Scarlet Alliance sex workers association, she shrugged off personal risk during the height of the epidemic.
“When she was delivering condoms to sex workers and promoting condom use in the early 80’s, the sex industry was largely illegal and condoms were used as evidence, so she was a brave woman,” Brace says. Alex Wodak, who championed Australia’s first needle and syringe program, also lends his recollections.
Over in Cambodia, where the epidemic hit roughly ten years later, around 1998, Hildebrand charts their incredible progress.
“It’s such a poor country that when the epidemic broke out, they started off with less than $10 to treat each AIDS patient,” Brace says. “Now there’s the highset uptake of medication in South East Asia, so they’re a real success story.”
Alongside the current struggle by Dalish, Transmission revisits the battle for better medical care and support for people living with HIV/AIDS by activist Oum Sopheap, now director of KHANNA, Cambodia’s biggest NGO doing exactly that.
Brace says that the commonality between the stories in Cambodia, and with the history of HIV/AIDS in Australia is the recurring notion of resilience; of how communities on the fringe of society, including homosexuals, drug users and sex workers, were able to come together and affect positive change.
“They brought HIV/AIDS into mainstream thinking,” Brace says. “They were dealing with the practicalities of how you deal with an epidemic.”
Transmission traces the pathway from what went before and how a variety of responses trickled down to people like Sebastian and Dalish, and how people access treatment, advice and support.
“What really comes through are the voices of positive people now,” Brace says. “Many activists are people who have become HIV positive and are increasingly taking a role in prevention and ending of HIV. HIV is still here, but we’ve come a long way, and people have achieved an enormous amount over a relatively short space of time. We’ve gone from AIDS to HIV, and hopefully soon there will be no HIV.”
Transmission - The Journey from AIDS to HIV – Monday Jul 21, 6.30pm, ACMI, acmi.net.au
(Image - Film still from Transmission: The Journey From AIDS To HIV)