Tuesday, August 31, 2010

THE HIV STORY PROJECT -- TO KNOW THEM IS TO LOVE THEM


Can I tell you about my new love? It's called the HIV Story Project. Based in San Francisco, the group produces short films on HIV/AIDS, provides media services and training to HIV/AIDS nonprofits, and also hosts a video storytelling booth at different locations that sparks community dialogue on HIV/AIDS. (At the end of this post, please check out the donations page for the ambitious film project they have going on.)

I'm especially enamored of the storytelling booth, which is called "Generations HIV." As you'll see in the video above, the booth has a little bench, and you face a video touch screen and a small video camera. Anyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, can go into the booth and do one or more of three things: record a question for a future user, answer a question that someone else has recorded, and/or record their own story about HIV/AIDS. It's the interactive nature of the thing -- you're talking with people who have been or will be in the booth -- that distinguishes it from other similar endeavors I've seen. The booth gets everyone in the same virtual "room" to have a dialogue across time and place.

Not to mention, across generations. Next year marks the 30th anniversary of HIV/AIDS, which means that generations of people have lived under the epidemic. The project is not just for gay people, or just for people with HIV; the virus is so widespread that virtually everyone has some connection to it, or at least a feeling about it. Either you have HIV, or you know someone who does, or you've been concerned about getting infected, or you live near an AIDS hospice, or you read the news about HIV. It's inescapable.

So why bother telling stories about it? Certainly it's more worthwhile to develop new drugs, provide social services for people with AIDS, or show folks how to properly use a condom or clean their needles. These are all valuable contributions to the fight against AIDS. But in a way, community health rests on storytelling. Let's take the gay community as an example. When AIDS first surfaced and gay men were hardest hit, the community had already developed some sense of personal and collective history. Individuals had their own stories of overcoming oppression and coming out of the closet, and they could connect their stories to those of others when they got together for sex or a drag show or a street protest or whatever else. A burgeoning film and theater scene -- with movies and shows like "Word is Out," "Boys in the Band," "The Times of Harvey Milk" -- further allowed gay people to create a collective story nationally. Newspapers and books extended the line historically, back through the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots, back through the Mattachine Society, back through persecution during World War II, even as far back as the ancient Greeks. It was, in short, these stories that actually made (and still make) the gay community. Without a shared sense of history or relationship, there is no gay community, only a bunch of gay individuals. That community power is what made gay men in the early 1980s educate themselves about HIV, or launch prevention efforts, or fight for treatment. And every time a gay man is about to have sex, the whole community is in the room there with him, and the whole history of gay people -- if he lets them in. So if he might have unprotected sex with someone who is HIV+, the underlying questions might be how it will feel, whether it'll be worth it, is this his only chance at love, does anybody care if he lives or dies. Those are questions that are answered when a community shares its stories. And that's just the example of the gay community. AIDS is of course now a global pandemic that cuts across all lines. 

So that's why I'm crushed out on the HIV Story Project. 

When I spoke with executive producer Marc Smolowitz, the booth was located in "Under One Roof," a retail shop in San Francisco's Castro district whose proceeds benefit the AIDS community. From there, the booth will be traveling to other Bay Area locations, and the group is planning to take the project online and to other cities around the nation and globe.

HEY! If you've read this far, please now go to the HIV Story Project's "Kickstarter" page. Now through October 1st, they're looking for $8,000 in pledges to help complete "Still Around," their series of 16 short films by as many filmmakers about people living with HIV. It's part of what they call their "video AIDS quilt for the 21st century." I hope you'll join me in pledging whatever you can -- $10, $25, $50, or more. Go do it now! Here again is the link, so please click away! You can even get some cool thank-you gifts, like a DVD of all the completed films. Have you clicked yet?

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