In Thailand, a sex worker reunites with her parents days before she dies. In rural India, a truck driver and his pregnant wife hope they don’t pass HIV to their baby. Outside Rio, free HIV meds and a family’s love help a young gay man rebound from near death. In Moscow, two lovestruck ex-junkies struggle to raise AIDS awareness—and to live to see their son grow. And in Uganda, 7-year-old James and his younger sister Jessica scrape by as two of Africa’s 12 million AIDS orphans. Documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy, 34, captures them all in her acclaimed, five-part Pandemic: Facing AIDS, produced with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and debuting nationally on HBO Sunday, June 15 at 7 p.m. Recently, she sat down with POZ founder Sean Strub to discuss her journey from America’s royal family into the dark heart of global AIDS—and the making of the documentary that, at a special UN screening on World AIDS Day last December, inspired even the most jaded AIDS insiders.
Sean Strub: So how did you come to this project?
Rory Kennedy: A few years ago, I’d gone to sub-Saharan Africa with a White House delegation to look at AIDS there. I met a woman who’d lost 12 of her 13 children to AIDS. She was the sole caretaker of 35 grandchildren. I thought, “It doesn’t get worse than this.” Then I learned that right down the road was a woman who’d watched all 16 of her children die. I thought, “So many people dying—this is unacceptable.”
SS: So once you had Gates’ funding and HBO’s interest, how did you decide on India, Thailand, Uganda, Brazil and Russia?
RK: We wanted to show a range in the way AIDS went from one person to another. But we also wanted to balance devastation with hope, so we looked for countries with some success in their programs. We’d initially proposed the U.S., but the Gates Foundation felt it was important to keep it out of the U.S., so we replaced it with Russia.
SS: Was it hard finding people to be in the film?
RK: It really depended on the country, and the level of HIV stigma there. In India, the social worker who was scouting for us had a really hard time finding openly positive people—and we were in a region where the infection rate is, like, 60 percent. Finally he found a couple for us to talk to—but we all sensed something was out of whack. It turned out they didn’t have AIDS at all. The social worker was trying so hard to please us, he’d paid them to say they had it. It was very bizarre.
SS: Once you started filming, though—did people ask you to stop when it got too intense?
RK: After intense moments—like in Thailand, when Lek [the sex worker]’s father rejects her—we said we wouldn’t use the film if they objected, but none did. Lek was initially very reluctant to talk, but after about two days she just went into her whole story. She started crying, and when we asked why, she said, “I’ve never told my story. Nobody has ever cared to ask. And I feel so liberated to just get this off my back.” I think telling her story played into her decision to go home and die with her family.
SS: What was it like coming from great privilege and meeting these people? How did you cope with that?
RK: It was the hardest thing about this film—especially the AIDS hospice in Thailand, seeing dozens of people who are going to die in the next day or hour, with a crematorium that burns two bodies a day. And they’ve all been alienated by their communities and families and don’t have anywhere else to turn. I tried not to shut myself down, but to be open to the pain.
SS: How are the people in the film all doing?
RK: A lot of them don’t have telephones or Internet, so it’s hard to keep in touch. The Russian couple is doing OK. Sadly, we just got the news that Nagaraj [the Indian truck driver] died. Cipla [which makes generic HIV meds] had said they’d help us get him drugs, but the closest hospital for lab tests was an eight-hour drive. At a certain point, I don’t care how much you provide drugs—if people can’t have clean water, if you can’t deal with TB and malaria, if you don’t have a health-care infrastructure—it’s useless.
SS: What about faith and prayer? Were they important to everyone?
RK: Very. In Brazil, Alex [the gay PWA] and his family, who are extremely religious Catholics, were able to get support from that and stay together. But they had issues with his being gay, and used the Bible to justify it.
SS: Speaking of that—you grew up in a family with a strong faith, but I’d bet your views on Catholicism are different from your family’s. I mean, are you throwing mashed potatoes at each other on Thanksgiving?
RK: Well, I don’t want to speak for them—but I would say I have a more progressive stance about the church than the others, although certainly not all of them. I think there are people in the church who give fully of themselves and take on controversial issues, and I admire them. But the church has been very alienating for a lot of groups, including women, PWAs and gays. It doesn’t speak to me in a way I feel included.
SS: Amen. So what do you want us to take away from Pandemic?
RK: A feeling of connection with what it means to live with AIDS in various countries. And of being called into action, not by somebody telling you to go do something, but internally, because your heart is opened a little bit more. That’s my hope.
Learn more and get involved at www.pandemicfacingaids.org.