By Jim Halterman
Originally published on Advocate.com November 30 2009 7:30 PM ET
HIV was once associated primarily with impoverished areas, places where heavy drug was commonplace, and cities with large gay populations, but it can strike anywhere in the world. Another outdated notion was that if you contracted the virus, your days were automatically numbered. To coincide with World AIDS Day, Showtime will air a new documentary that stresses the reality that HIV is no longer a death sentence and that ordinary people all over the world are living full lives with the virus.
In Love in a Time of HIV, which begins airing Tuesday, we encounter three situations in which people are living with HIV. In New York City we find mother and daughter Susan and Christina, who both have HIV but are having very different experiences. In London, Andrew and Michelle would like to have a baby, but Andrew is HIV-positive and Michelle is not. In South Africa singer Tender, who was a popular contestant on the South African competition series Idols, saw her career and life take a dramatic shift when she revealed her HIV-positive status on a live broadcast.
Producer Beth Jones spoke from London last week about the making of the documentary and how even she was surprised with what she learned during the process of shooting.
Advocate.com: How did you go about finding the stories and people for the documentary?
Beth Jones: In London we very much wanted to tell the story of how someone — an HIV-positive man — would go about having a baby. You remember from the press all the doom-and-gloom stories about having HIV, and the idea actually now is that it’s not about how do I live or die but it’s about how do I go about living my life, how do I go about getting married and having children? We approached the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London and asked them, "Do you have anyone at the moment and would you contact them on our behalf and see who would be willing to talk to us?" Lucky for us, Andrew and Michelle were really great and came along for the ride.
Was the sperm-washing procedure new to you when you filmed the Andrew-Michelle segment?
It was completely new. I had a very limited knowledge of how you would go about it. It seems to be a process that even someone as ignorant as me can understand, and it’s fantastic. I don’t understand why it’s not available more widely, really.
What is the success rate with it actually working?
Well, I think it’s relatively low, but I think around 30 babies have been born in the U.K. to HIV-positive couples.
Tender’s story had already been so public due to her exposure on Idols. Was she apprehensive at all about being part of the documentary?
You can tell from Tender’s perspective that she’s an incredibly eloquent young lady. She is someone who really had this thrust upon her. She went to telling people about her status on live television, so it came really quick and fast for her, but she’s gotten very used to speaking about it. By the time our crew got to her, this was something that she was very happy to talk about, and I think she talks about it incredibly well.
With the mother-daughter story of Susan and Christina, did you realize you were going to get such different perspectives in the same household?
It was lovely to have that contrast between someone like Susan, who really had to adjust her life and go through an incredible life change, and someone like Christina, who has grown up with it her whole life. There’s a quote in it somewhere where [Christina] says, "My mom had a chance to be a teenager without this, and I’ve never had that." So you have these two people living side by side who are an incredible support for one another but who essentially have quite different experiences, which I found interesting to talk about.
Susan mentions that she believes she contracted it from her husband, but does she know how he contracted it?
Susan never asked her husband how he got it. I don’t think she knows. She said it was either through drugs or through having sex with men. It is kind of incredible in itself, but I guess you just don’t know how you would handle that kind of situation until it happens to you, and that’s how she chose to do it.
One thing I noticed from the documentary is that the subjects were all heterosexual. Was that by design, or was that more of a happenstance?
It was just happenstance, really. The original series, which aired on the BBC, included Russia and India, and in Russia we spoke to people who weren’t heterosexual couples, so we had a gay subject in that one.
Do you know if those additional stories will eventually come to the States?
I personally could watch these stories forever, so hopefully there will be a chance for them to show in the U.S.
What’s the message that you’d like people to take from watching the documentary?
I would like them to remember that HIV has not gone away, and perhaps we need to reassess the perceptions that we all hold about it. It isn’t just a case of "Remember that HIV thing that happened a long time ago?" Remember to take a fresh look and realize that it’s still around.