According to the Center for Disease Control, blacks account for almost 50 percent of all new HIV infections among adults and children in the U.S. It is a staggering statistic when you consider blacks represent less than 13 percent of the entire population. Globally, living with HIV and AIDS is a debilitating reality for 35 million people, and an everyday existence for someone you possibly know and love. But the face of the disease today—predominantly black men and women, and "men who like to have sex with men"—has become a matter discussed with less frequency. With that in mind, director Hannelore Williams set out to present a fuller, more vibrant picture of the epidemic thirty years since the virus was first identified.
The result was Dirty 30, a 10-part docu-series that will debut December 1st on YouTube. Williams, who studied at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, has previously admitted that the series is for "people who don't want to talk about HIV" and hopes episodes—which range from motherhood and digital love to humor and coping—will reach viewers on a personal level. Our conversation appears below.
This docu-series is an incredibly brave undertaking—what sparked it?
Hannelore Williams: There were a few things that happened at the same time. I can't help but think of what it takes to start a fire in the woods, for example. I decided to volunteer with artsINSIDEOUT at a shelter for mothers and children affected by HIV and AIDS, Nkosi's Haven in Johannesburg, South Africa. Before I went, I thought I'd do some research on HIV to make sure I wasn't objectifying people with my camera. I didn't want to contribute to any stereotypical images of African children with AIDS. Then it hit me; my sister's father passed from complications of AIDS a few years back and we never spoke about it. I think the first time we did was when I interviewed her for Dirty 30. At the same time I was newly single—which meant getting back out there. Through research I found that my demographic—black women—is the highest rising new cases of HIV diagnoses in the U.S. I was stunned. When I looked up films to watch, I didn't feel I could personally relate to the content that was out there. All those factors came together and I had to keep going.
You've said that your intention is to show HIV/AIDS through a different lens; do people still have misconceptions about the disease?
I can't speak for "people"; we all come from different places and have different opinions. It's also hard to say that about HIV because there are varying opinions on where we are even within the field. I explore that in the "AIDS Inc" episode. From my experience filming this series, we need to look more at the social causes effecting the spread of this virus. That's what I know to be true across the board.
Here's an example, let's look at our prison system. Your mind first goes to sex, but let's look at the fact that people in prison are shooting up drugs with shared needles. This is a huge issue within the prison system here in the U.S. and abroad. People are also having sex in prison without condoms. Together, these factors present a clear breading ground for HIV. We could go on to discuss which populations are imprisoned at higher rates—black men. Google it, the information is out there.
Having traveled the world and spoken with so many people, what does the face of the epidemic look like in 2014—both globally and in the U.S.?
Women are the majority of people infected with HIV globally. People of color are the majority of the infected, that's in the U.S. and abroad. Here in the U.S., gay men—actually it's Men Who Have Sex With Men, because not all MSMs identify themselves as gay—still make up the majority of those diagnosed. Black and Latino men to be specific. Having said that, these same groups suffer the most when it comes to stigma—with or without HIV.
Did most people—those affected and those who work in the field—have a hopeful outlook?
Hope is a beautiful thing; it's also a hard thing to measure. HIV and AIDS is very layered—where are we looking for hope? Hope that people will get tested more regularly without feeling ashamed? Hope that the pharmaceutical industry will make drugs more affordable and accessible? Hope that there's more support for drug addicts? Hope that more comfortable condoms will hit the market? Hope of a cure? You might have hope in one or two of these places, but probably not all.
In Episode 4 we're introduced to Kia, who's 23 and has had HIV her entire life, but she still grapples with very human issues—dating, the fear of being dismissed or unwanted, the desire to feel sexy and empowered. Kia hasn't let HIV consume her life. Did you find that to be true with most people you spoke with?
Yes, many people who are infected with HIV, it's not their biggest concern in life. HIV, whether they choose to treat it or not, becomes yet another facet to their life. That is, unless you have an AIDS diagnosis and are sick with an opportunistic infection. Then it will become a—if not the—major focus. Which still happens, everyday, around the world.
Kia has an interesting story. Her mother died of the disease, and Kia, who was born HIV positive, didn't start taking medicine until she was a teenager. Why was her story important to tell?
You rarely hear the personal story of someone who was born positive or someone that was infected at an early age. The youths in this pandemic need to hear the stories of others that have gone through what they are going through to help them navigate what's already a challenging time, coming of age, with the added burden of being HIV positive. Also, she talks about the pain of loosing a parent to this virus, which personally, I wanted to share with my sister.
What was the most difficult aspect of filming this series?
It depends on the stage. Pre-production, the hardest part was figuring out the concept. I didn't want to make another AIDS doc. Production, was traveling alone—for the most part—with all this heavy equipment strapped to my back and asking strangers to trust me with their personal stories. Post-production, was the months and months of work to edit the series while freelancing at the same time so I could keep the old rent paid.
Who is this docu-series for?
My target audience for Dirty 30 is young people of color around the world. HIV can infect anyone of any race, age, or sex. So truly this series is for anyone who wants to know the reality of where we are with HIV and AIDS today.
So what are you hoping viewers take away from Dirty 30?
That HIV is closer to you than you think, it's not some other person out there that HIV is looking for, some bad person out there who deserves HIV. It's not even a matter of good or bad, it's about looking at your behaviors and your preconceived notions and just getting over it. Shit happens, so get tested.
[Photo by Tara Jacoby; image via Dirty 30's Facebook page]