While the HIV/AIDS epidemic does not make the headlines regularly anymore, a new, riveting, documentary by Emily Abt takes the time to dig in deeper to how this epidemic has morphed into a killer of African American women. African American women are now 68% of new diagnoses, yet only make up 6% of the population. This is a crisis. Abt takes us to the Bronx and introduces us to an idealistic young doctor, Mehret Mandefro who has dedicated her career to raising attention to this issue, while at the same time provides compassionate care to women who could easily have fallen through the cracks in an overburdened health care system. The women who share their stories in All of Us are so incredibly brave and impressive and have spoken out so that what happened to them doesn't happen to girls and young women.
The film opens tomorrow, Friday, September 19th in NYC at the Cinema Village, and will premiere on Showtime on World AIDS Day on December 1st. More info here: All of Us
Director Emily Abt answered some questions about her film.
Women & Hollywood: How did you meet Mehret and why did you want to tell this story?
Emily Abt: I met Mehret Mandefro in 2003 when we were both Fulbright Scholars in London. She was getting her masters in Public Health of Developing Countries at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and I was making my Columbia University MFA thesis film on local Muslim girls. We were both deeply committed to social change -- she as a doctor, and I as a filmmaker -- and wanted to know more about why black women were being disproportionately impacted by HIV. Most effective social-issue documentaries start with an important question and that was ours. Black women are 23 times more likely than white women to get HIV and HIV is still the leading cause of death for black women ages 18-35. Mehret and I felt this reality was unacceptable and wanted to turn a spotlight on the issue.
When I first began the film five years ago, I hoped there would be a great deal of media coverage on the topic of HIV and black women in America as well as a good deal of public outrage about the lack of funding allotted to deal with this health crisis. But unlike the AIDS movement of the 1980's, largely spearheaded by gay men, there has been no such movement on behalf of the countless American black women who have suffered disproportionately from this disease.
W&H: Please explain what ABC is and why it is not enough especially for poor, urban, heterosexual women?
EA: The 'Abstain, Be faithful, use Condoms' approach to HIV prevention as endorsed by the Bush administration is irrelevant for the majority of women and young people, leaving them without the necessary information or tools they need to protect themselves. More specifically, ABC isn't effective because it's been proven that abstinence-only education does little to reduce sexual activity; marriage is actually a risk factor for HIV so the 'be faithful' message misses the point, and using condoms is of course important but fails to take into account that women tend not to protect themselves when they're sleeping with men who have the upper hand, financially or otherwise. Public health experts on the ground must be able to determine the best mix of prevention programming that responds to the circumstances of the epidemic where they are working. As it stands, their hands are tied by mandates from Washington. Congress can and should change this.
W&H: How did you find Chevelle and Tara and also how did you get them to agree to have intimate details and histories included in this film?
EA: Chevelle and Tara were women that Mehret met through her work at Montifiore Hospital in the Bronx where she was doing her residency. It wasn't actually very difficult to get them to share their stories - they really wanted their voices to be heard!
W&H: I was shocked when Mehret revealed that while she preaches safe sex with all her patients, she herself has not always practiced safe sex. What did that moment reveal about women and power in sexual relationships?
EA: That moment showed that all women need to do a better job at being self-protective. When it comes to sexual health, progressives and feminists must push hard for change on a legislative level but also can't overlook promoting it on a personal one as well. While the paternalistic protectionism of early years was clearly a destructive force for women, we must embrace a new self-protectiveness when it comes to our behavior in the bedroom and within our intimate relationships. I created ALL OF US to be used as a tool for not only social change, but personal change as well.
W&H: How do we get the powers that be to take this epidemic more seriously?
EA: Forgive me for being self-promotional but suggesting they see ALL OF US ain't a terrible idea. Writing our senators and insisting that they support Senator Barbara Lee's trailblazing PATHWAY bill (backed up by Hilary Clinton) is also a good start. And there needs to be a mass of people -whites, blacks, browns, men, women, etc- all shouting that there's something wrong here. The message needs to come from all of us because the advocacy groups aren't able to create enough public discourse on their own. And of course, vote for Obama.
W&H: Explain the tag line - love and sex can mean life or death?
EA: ALL OF US promotes the idea that when you're ready to have sex with someone, you should both get tested and share those results. Some people say "well, that's really awkward and not too romantic" to which I respond: should you really be sharing life's most intimate, sacred act with someone if you can't have that conversation?
As women, we have to start looking at the way we confuse love and sex. Men will happily sleep with a woman they don't love. It's one thing to be okay being that woman, and perhaps jeopardize yourself emotionally, but women are often also allowing themselves to be physically vulnerable in the very scariest of ways. Women, across boundaries of race and class, are so hungry for love and intimacy from their male partners that they're willing to put their very lives on the line to get it. And when women contract HIV, or even a bad STD, they feel like damaged goods. They feel that their very worth as a human being has been lessened and can even become suicidal. So ALL OF US is trying to start some very crucial, life or death, conversations and asks viewers not to just watch this epidemic from a distance but rather, say to themselves "there but for the grace of God, go I..."
W&H: What are your goals for the film?
EA: I hope ALL OF US, like all my films, inspires women to stand up for themselves. I'd like some teenager in the Bronx to see the film and say to herself "you know I'm not going to settle for casual sex when what I really want is a commitment." I'm hoping a college kid sees it and realizes there's no excuse for skipping the condom. I want the film to be used as a tool by the wonderful educators, social workers, medical health professionals, advocates and the blessed community organizers (take that Sarah Palin) that have made it their business to stop or slow this epidemic. And if I did my job right than ALL OF US will spark dialogue and social change among thousands of women and girls who are unfortunately on the front-lines of great personal risk. If someone uses the film to advocate for a national sexual health plan (is it really okay that 1 in 4 teenage girls has an STD?), nothing more would please me. That's all, just a few modest goals.
W&H: What did you learn from making this film?
EA: I learned that sometimes making a film will leave you with battle scars but that means you're battle-tested for the next one. And I learned (again) that art and politics can make a mighty fine combination if carefully mixed.