Being Together in a World with HIV Movie “Love for Life” and Documentary “Together”
By Yubing Xia
In May 2011, the film “Love for Life” and the documentary “Together”, both of which deal with topics relating to HIV, hit the screens in China, attracting much public attention.
“Love for Life” tells the story of a Chinese village in the 1990s, where a young man and woman infected with HIV through selling blood meet, fall in love and marry. The film follows their joys and sorrows, until their eventual deaths from AIDS. The film shows in stark detail the various difficulties faced by people living with HIV at the time: poverty, pain, fear, despair, loneliness, discrimination, and the loss of dignity, a future and intimacy.
The story depicted in “Love for Life” takes place during the first ten years of the HIV epidemic. At that time, the world’s reaction to HIV was slow, and medical science had no answers to the disease. Countries across the world gave insufficient political attention and commitment to the problem, and there were no international or community-based civil society organisations providing care and support for those infected. This year is the 30th year of the HIV epidemic and compared with the past, the situation both in China and globally is very different. Starting in 2003, China launched its “Four Frees, One Care” policy, increasing the number of people receiving treatment from virtually zero in 2003, to over 86,000 in 2010. More and more people living with HIV are enjoying the benefits of highly effective treatments, which make HIV into a manageable condition, and allow people living with HIV to lead long, fulfilled lives.
Despite this huge progress however, the discrimination seen in the film is still present. The documentary “Together” showed how the production crew of “Love for Life” tried to get people living with HIV involved as film extras and members of the production crew. Through the whole process – from searching for candidates online, to face to face interviews, to finally finding three people living with HIV willing to participate in the film – we see the negative impacts of stigma and discrimination on those living with HIV.
In reality, changes are taking place. In its first week in cinemas, “Love for Life” took in over 58 million RMB at the box office. Gu Changwei and Zhang Ziyi won awards at the 20th Shanghai Film Critics Prize for best director and best female actress. “Together” was screened at the Berlin Film Festival, and received standing ovations from audiences. On the popular film review website, Douban, “Together” received ratings of 8.9 and netizens’ comments were full of tears, understanding and emotion. Some spent time educating others about how HIV can be transmitted, how transmission can be prevented between mothers and children, and other key facts. One netizen, calling herself “Fox in the Shadows” said “I’d never seen a film about HIV before because I really didn’t want to know anything about it. But after having the opportunity to see “Love for Life”, a lot of my misconceptions have been overturned and I plan to really try to learn more about these people and get to know them. If I see a person with HIV on the street one day looking for a hug, I will go and hug them without hesitation.”
Discrimination stems from ignorance
In “Love for Life”, the character played by Aaron Kwok picks up a cigarette dropped by a passer by, and offers it back to him. The passer by runs away in fear; while Zhang Ziyi’s character is squatting down, packing her luggage, her mother-in-law kicks the case closed with her foot; Hu Zetao, the 9 year old boy who features in “Together” is not allowed to eat from the same pot as his family members; when other film extras hear that their co-actor Lao Xia is HIV positive, they are extremely surprised, turn around and don’t even dare to look at him. This fear and ostracism originates from a lack of understanding around the ways in which HIV is transmitted, and moral judgments resulting from the demonization of people living with HIV seen in many early information campaigns around HIV.
As the first Chinese director of a film directly dealing with issues surrounding HIV, Gu Changwei believes that discrimination is often the result of a lack of understanding of HIV and of people living with HIV. “I believe that most people are caring and sympathetic, and that these negative attitudes are primarily the result of a lack of knowledge. We have failed to provide people with opportunities to learn more,” said Gu. “HIV can’t be completely cured, but it can be managed. Saliva is a bodily fluid, but you can’t become infected through contact with saliva. Transmission of HIV from mother to child can be prevented… If people were aware of these things, their attitudes would change.”
“Love for Life” is not a scientific documentary. It focuses more on portraying human nature. Gu Changwei believes that by labelling groups of people who are essentially equal and worthy of respect into “Them” and “Us”, a distance has been created between people living with HIV and people not living with HIV, which leads to discrimination. “The basic reason for making this film was out of respect for human dignity”, said Gu. “Whether or not a person is living with some disease or condition, I don’t think we should make a big distinction. Perhaps it is those who discriminate who are the “sick” ones. Do we imagine that the story which we see in “Love for Life” couldn’t take place between two people who are not living with HIV?”
As well as raising awareness about scientific facts, Gu Changwei also believes that emotional understanding can have a powerful impact on changing people’s attitudes. “If “We” can learn more about the lives of those living with HIV through the story in “Love for Life”, we will naturally come to understand that those people we think of as “Them” also have dignity and that their lives are as worthy of respect as anyone else’s. I think this is a way of combating discrimination,” says Gu, “If audiences like the characters, and sympathise with them, this will change their discriminatory attitudes, and lead to changes in longstanding discriminatory views and ideas.”
Combating Discrimination Requires Efforts from all Sides
People living with HIV have already put much effort into combating discrimination. In “Together” we see that people living with HIV are coming together in solidarity through online platforms like QQ groups, but are also coming out onto the streets, making their HIV status known, and asking strangers for a hug. Appearing unmasked in a film is also unquestionably a very brave action.
People’s self respect and mutual support are critical, but they are not enough. Support from others is essential. Gu Changwei, Pu Cunxin, Jiang Wenli and Wang Baoqiang, all of whom were involved in the making of “Love for Life”, have been actively involved in awareness-raising around HIV for many years. Such advocacy by public figures helps to spread awareness and accurate information, but also shows the importance of treating people living with HIV the same as everyone else. As Zhang Ziyi said at the end of “Together”, while watching HIV positive actor Hu Hongtao and her niece were playing together “This is the childhood he deserves. This is the happiness he deserves. And it’s this kind of environment that creates that happiness for him. I wish society could be like our movie crew, embracing and accepting people affected by HIV, supporting and loving each other.”
Gu Changwei notes that celebrities can play an important role in fighting discrimination, but the power of laws and policies is even greater. A report jointly issued by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the China Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) in 2010 noted that discrimination exists at the policy level preventing people living with HIV from serving as civil servants or teachers. “Pu Cunxin submits a proposal to remove discriminatory laws every year at the meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, and he is planning to do so again next year. Institutional discrimination is the most fundamental type of discrimination. People who are taking the same exams, applying for the same jobs, shouldn’t be refused just because they are HIV positive” said Gu. “China has already removed travel restrictions for people living with HIV. I think the removal of these discriminatory policies is inevitable.” UNAIDS China Country Coordinator Mark Stirling agreed: “Love for Life is an important film, which will have an impact at many levels,” said Stirling. “The film is a powerful tool for raising awareness among the general public and helping people to realize that people living with HIV are just the same as everyone else. At the same time, the film will strengthen support for government efforts to eliminate institutional discrimination wherever it exists, and particularly in employment and healthcare settings.”
Civil society’s participation in China’s response to HIV is of great importance. On the one hand, CBOs can reach vulnerable groups and provide important space for PLHIV to come together, provide psychosocial support to them, and help them become a stronger and more empowered population. On the other hand, CBOs help to create a more supportive environment for PLHIV by fighting for their human rights, especially fighting against stigma and discrimination.
Kaka, a community worker from the Shandong Province’s Rainbow Working Group, was involved in promoting “Love for Life” in Shandong. “Whether you are living with HIV or not, everyone dies in the end, so the most important thing is ensuring good quality of life. Whether we can live happy lives, with dignity, is of critical importance,” said Kaka. Zhan Fei, a person living with HIV from Zhejiang’s Aizaiqiantang Mutual Support Group agreed that discrimination against PLHIV exists in many forms and that this often makes PLHIV too scared to reveal their HIV status, even to family members. “There is serious discrimination in the healthcare system,” said Zhan Fei. “Getting access to medical treatment, and especially surgery, is a major issue for people with HIV.”
Kaka believes that China’s response to HIV needs to pursue a two pronged approach. One prong is the government approach, which is already quite strong, but which still needs some improvements; the other prong is grassroots NGOs, which are currently too weak and in serious need of help. “We are able to reach MSM, sex workers and other key at risk populations, providing them with intervention services, psychological support, referral and other services,” says Kaka. “But Chinese civil society still needs to be allowed to register, allowing us to carry out work legally. We need funding, human resources and experience as well.” Zhan Fei also agreed: “If grassroots organisations are allowed to grow stronger with support from all sides, it would certainly have a very positive impact on improving the quality of civil society’s response to HIV and the quality of life of people living with HIV.”
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