At the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC (AIDS 2012) coverage of HIV stigma was more muted than at previous events. This is likely for a number of reasons – not least that stigma reduction is now more integrated into general programming, thereby reducing the need to treat it as a distinct phenomenon. There is also much more of an emphasis on interventions and campaigns, rather than exploring and theorising.
HIV stigma has been a feature of the epidemic since the beginning. Last week in the Global Village new film Undefeated, produced by the UK-based, anti-HIV stigma campaign Life in my shoes, played to a packed audience. The film tracks the experience of Blessing, a young Londoner living with HIV, facing the impact of non-consented disclosure. A school secretary, seeing Blessing’s records – and obviously with her own issues and stresses – shares this information with her own daughter, a pupil at the same school, and a friend of Blessings. This is, apparently, to protect her daughter from ‘catching’ HIV, although one suspects its also used as an attack – their mother-daughter relationship doesn’t look especially wholesome.
As the knowledge of Blessing’s status leaks in widening concentric circles, we see increasing negativity towards her from other pupils. She faces a range of responses – mostly negative (apart from her boyfriend, who was already aware) – and she’s frightened, isolated, and feels guilty. What’s great about this film is that many of the actors are non-professional. The passion and truth they bring to the story add to its vitality and shock factor. It tackles issues head on, and its not all doom and gloom. There are voices of sanity and strands of hope here though, and at the close we see in Blessing a new determination to face down her detractors.
It’s not an easy road though, and the film is intended as a learning resource for young people to discuss issues around stigmatisation and HIV. No doubt the voices of reason – one being Blessing’s boyfriend (“She hasn’t got AIDS; she’s HIV positive”) – will be used a basis for group discussions.
This is an important film. It’s well made, with great music, writing and acting (especially lead Pearl Mahaga). I was a little disappointed at the end – the secretary who leaked Blessing’s status doesn’t get her comeuppance as we all hoped. A sequel is planned though, and I look forward to a continuation of the story line – and another fine film exploring the toxicity of stigma, and the potential in affected people to overcome society’s tendency to regress to the mean.
For more information about Life in my shoes visit www.lifeinmyshoes.org