Two Northern Virginia filmmakers have collaborated on a powerful documentary project that is not officially part of, but will be presented in conjunction with, the annual International AIDS Conference that is being held for the first time ever in Washington, D.C. next week. It’s a call to action to end the silence on the rampant and continuing spread of the HIV virus and AIDS among urban African-American populations across the U.S., and most specifically in D.C. itself.
Based just outside the Falls Church area, Art Jones’ and Pam Bailey’s “Dream Factory” operation last month completed their hour-and-a-half film, “13 Percent” that will be screened during the conference week on Tuesday, July 24, at Bloombars, 3222 11th St., NW in D.C., at 7 p.m.
It is more than just a documentary, Jones told the News-Press at a special media screening last week. It is aimed at provoking a movement, something akin to the “Act Up” civil disobedience movement among predominantly white male gays in the 1980s, to get some openness, understanding and frank dialogue going in a minority community that prefers silence on such matters.
“Act Up,” founded by gay activist Larry Kramer, had as its slogan, “Silence Equals Death,” and it began to force government entities at local, state and national levels to start seriously responding to what was becoming a raging epidemic of AIDS killing tens of thousands of American citizens.
The “Silence Equals Death” slogan is appropriate to urban African-American communities in the U.S. today, Jones said.
Blacks make up only 13 percent of the total population of the U.S., but every year are 50 percent of all new HIV infections. The “13 Percent” documentary is aimed not so much at the general population, where PBS “Frontline” and other documentaries have been directed, but at the Black minority communities, themselves. Washington, D.C. is an epicenter of the virus’ spread, as are 12 other major U.S. cities.
“Start the conversation!” is the closing appeal in it, and the hope is for the widest possible circulation of the film on cable television platforms as well as in churches and schools in inner cities.
It is a sobering and frank treatment of this plague’s spread in the Black community, and the consequences in real people’s lives of the lack of knowledge about it, about its consequences and about the lack of resources or education among public health officials to identify its symptoms and treat it early.
“It’s a dirty little secret that spreads across gender and sexual orientation,” the film says in its opening. It documents the lives of Blacks with the virus, starting with a heterosexual man who’s lived with it for 30 years and can barely lift his own shoes because of how the virus and side effects of the treatment have ravaged his body.
Interspersed are the statistics that a new person is infected with HIV every 9.5 minutes in the U.S., a total of 56,000 a year. The age group 13 – 39, representing the most promise and productivity among the total population, constitutes two thirds of all infected persons. The single group within this age range that is becoming infected the fastest are Black heterosexual women, who have the added benefit to the wider community of being of child-rearing ages.
In this, Jones said, he sees the greatest crisis. HIV and AIDS are threatening the very future and existence of African-Americans. Of newly identified HIV infections now, 62 percent evolve into full-blown AIDS within one year of diagnosis.
While combinations of treatment regimens can keep a majority of AIDS patients alive, life expectancy is still far lower for infected persons, even with treatment.
A Northern Virginia high school football star with a full scholarship to college is profiled. In routinely donating blood during his freshman year in college, it was discovered he was HIV positive. He kept it a secret from his family, even as his personal life spiraled downward to homelessness and drug abuse.
When he finally rebounded and sought to enlist in the military, he thought he’d pulled his life back together, only to have the military learn of his HIV status and turn him away at the last minute. Only then was he forced to painfully confess his condition to his parents and begin to build a life with the virus.
Another profile was of a girl born with the virus, and the stigma that attended others, including her teachers at school, finding out, subjecting her to cruel discrimination.
The film addresses the important role of churches in the Black population, which has contributed to the problem because of their refusal to acknowledge a problem exists, even though by 1986, 25 percent of all HIV infections were among Blacks. Stigma and rejection have amplified fear, denial and silence, Jones said.
“It’s 30 years since the outbreak of AIDS, and Black communities have undergone little change,” he said.
The film points out the virus spread fastest in the poorer communities that lack adequate health care and educational means. It cites the dominant culture in those communities and the lack of value placed on health. Self-deprecating slang, sex and killing people is all that the Black music and television offer, Jones said. These entities do not acknowledge the power of what they’re saying.
With “rap” being the new gateway out of the ‘hood, Jones commented, it matters whether the rappers are truly artists or just hustlers.
In this culture, Jones said, AIDS is still viewed as a gay man’s disease, and anyone known to have it is treated like a leper. Yet since 2003, more women than men in the African-American community are being diagnosed with the virus, and it is now the No. 1 cause of death for Black women ages 25 – 34.
There is a great fear of telling the truth about one’s HIV or AIDS status because of the fear of discrimination This and the lack of an ability to recognize the symptoms of the disease cause persons to delay seeking treatment, often until it is too late.
There has been a collective silence, Jones said. The film talks about the need for human beings to be moral to one another, and for young people to understand and utilize the power of their voice to bring this problem into the open so it can be fully addressed.
That’s the purpose of the “13 Percent” documentary.