‘Testing’: HIV Foundation Qld video campaign warns: 'know your status'
“I would say it’s the most devastating moment of my life.” So begins ‘Testing’, the second in a series of three HIV reduction campaign videos from the HIV Foundation Queensland.
The words are spoken by a young man, Allen, who goes on to say he felt “my life ended then”. By the end of the video, Allen has spoken of his journey and reassures us and himself as he says of his HIV positive status, “it’s not a death sentence, it’s not the end of the world”.
It’s a statement that lies at the heart of this approach to reducing HIV in Queensland by the HIV Foundation, one that runs in tandem with the safe sex message. Put simply, the message is that frequent testing, made easier by the advent of HIV rapid testing centres, is the key to reducing HIV.
Knowing your status, as the video points out, is the key to taking control of your sexual health.
Filmmaker Mikey Trotter says his inspiration for the videos was personal. “I have many friends who are HIV positive,” he says. “I have spent too many hours opposite friends in cafés hearing stories of their HIV disclosure and then rejection. Also, friends calling me up saying ‘I’ve just found out I’m positive’ and then helping them as their worlds came crashing down around them; or situations such as hearing people talk in nightclubs, saying things like, ‘Don’t sleep with him, he’s positive’ – a line that actually ended up in one of our videos. Luckily, advances in medication mean HIV can be managed. But problems with stigma are still very much alive.”
Trotter says some people still don’t know the difference between ‘HIV’ and ‘AIDS’. “The social issues today often come from lack of education, but also the fact that HIV is not something people are happy to talk openly about. It can be very much an ‘elephant in the room’. This lack of talking and information has led to a lack of awareness. It also means many guys don’t know their own status – they are afraid to test; or don’t know their partner’s status – they are afraid to ask.
“They also don’t know much about medications and how HIV positive men on medication with an undetectable viral load are almost unable to pass on the virus; whereas people who don’t know their status and are newly infected are very infectious. A successful campaign today has many elements to address, which is why we felt a documentary could do this, as a poster in a toilet can only really address one issue. If we captured the audience’s attention and could hold it, we could address many more.”
HIV Testing: I thought it was something everyone did
In ‘Testing’, a young, fit and healthy guy, Allen, is shown swimming in the surf while saying he never expected “someone like me” could be affected by HIV. Another man, Ji, talks of his athletic career that saw him take out a silver medal at the Sydney Olympic Games. He says his partner returned home one day having tested positive for HIV, and realised there were health consequences for himself too.
Disclosure between partners and ignorance of a lack of testing in the broader community are shown as key factors contributing to HIV, but the video shows that life goes on for those with an HIV diagnosis: Ji meets his new partner in a ‘love at first sight’ moment on Bondi Beach. “I said to him, there’s something I need to tell you…”
Ji says he went on HIV medication to lower his viral load and “take out the fear” of infecting his partner, and the couple enjoy a healthy sex life.
Trotter says the cast of people in the three films had the support of their families, but that isn’t always the case. “We often heard how disclosure to family members was incredibly tough but had brought them closer together, building stronger bonds, love and respect. These were the stories that often made me cry during the interviews. Me and the production team shed a lot of tears during the interview process, moved by the amazing family members in the films.”
Candidates for the films were found through social media, through leaflets distributed in clubs and sex venues, and through the Queensland Positive Speakers Bureau. “It was important to include not just gay men but the heterosexual population as well,” Trotter says. “HIV is not just a gay disease. During early research the biggest response and conversations I started were with my straight friends. They were the ones who knew least, but wanted to know most. We knew at this stage it was crucial to include various HIV positive women and straight men in our films. We also wanted to include people from all over Queensland and not just Brisbane. Our stories include people from as far north as Cairns.”
In ‘Testing’, Allen talks about coming out to his father, not only as a gay man but as an HIV positive man also. “He took the gay thing rather well, and he knew about HIV so he knew what it was,” Allen says. “Just knowing that my Dad didn’t even care – it wasn’t a shock, he just cared how I was feeling – was the best I could have hoped for.”
Ultimately the message of ‘Testing’ is that no one is immune to catching HIV, that the virus does not discriminate, and that the best way to stay in control of your health if you’re sexually active is to test regularly and know your status.
IMAGE: Allen in ‘Testing’.