Facing a Global Health Crisis: Rory Kennedy and “Pandemic: Facing AIDS”
by Nick Poppy
It is unclear when Rory Kennedy squeezed in the time to make the multi-part series “Pandemic: Facing AIDS” and coordinate the accompanying large-scale educational campaign. This alone would be enough to occupy one’s time, but she also recently finished her second feature for HBO, “A Boy’s Life,” about a troubled Mississippi family (which screened at the Tribeca Film Festival this past spring). And along the way, she had a baby. Someone’s Palm Pilot is in order.
All things being equal, Kennedy should be proud of “Pandemic: Facing AIDS.” The series (which debuts Sunday, June 15th at 7pm on HBO) follows families and individuals affected by the disease in five of the world’s AIDS hotspots: Thailand, Russia, Uganda, India, and Brazil. The experiences of these people, some living with AIDS, some dying from it, others merely devastated by it, form the emotional core of “Pandemic.” Each of the five episodes is invariably heartbreaking. How could they not be? The observational enterprise that is cinema verite, at once invasive and laissez-faire, is conducted here with admirable sensitivity. With a half hour allotted for each county, the stories are told with economy, but not hurriedly. The tone is sober, without a lot of bells and whistles. Phillip Glass contributes one of his minimalist scores, to urgent yet almost subliminal effect. Elton John narrates, barely. “Pandemic: Facing AIDS” is a triumph of respectful tones and sober vision.
There have been movies made about AIDS before. Isn’t this just so much extra tape? And yet, as this series illustrates, the disease continues to rage, and people continue to die. “Pandemic: Facing AIDS” will fail if it changes just one person’s mind about the disease. It is designed to change many more, and if it is able to do so, maybe we’ll be getting somewhere.
Rory Kennedy spoke to indieWIRE about the AIDS crisis, awareness-raising filmmaking, and the trials of shooting in the developing world.
indieWIRE: How did you get involved with this project?
Rory Kennedy: Four years ago, I had been asked to join a White House delegation under the Clinton administration to go to Africa and make a short film about the AIDS crisis there. I was profoundly affected by what I saw. I remember meeting a woman, Bernadette, who had 11 children, 10 of whom had died of AIDS. She was the sole caretaker of 35 grandchildren. So when we’re talking about the devastation that AIDS has caused to families and communities and villages, that’s what we’re talking about — entire families decimated and villages that have disappeared.
As I learned more about the AIDS crisis, I realized that it was beginning to spread at an alarming rate in other places around the world: Asia, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, South America. And so I felt compelled, after coming home from that trip, to make a larger project about the global pandemic.
iW: What can a documentary tell us about the crisis, that we haven’t already seen or read?
Kennedy: I think documentaries provide an opportunity for people to understand an issue from the inside out — from the perspective of people who are living it. When I thought about Africa and my experience there, I knew the statistics — that 40 million people are HIV positive in the world today, that 24 million people have already died, that there are 13 million AIDS orphans worldwide. But what stuck with me most was Bernadette. The most memorable moment was meeting her. And so when I set out to do this project, I really wanted to try to humanize AIDS and go beyond the statistics and the numbers, to really introduce people to the human dimension of AIDS. In the project, we focused on one or two people in each of the countries that we filmed, so there are not a lot of experts or statistics or facts. I think that that’s really the power of the medium, to introduce people to an issue through personal stories. When a documentary is coupled with or augmented by other types of information and resources, then it can have the greatest potential impact — really encourage understanding and involvement, and hopefully ultimately create social change.
iW: It seems like there’s a trend of documentaries being coupled with public education programs. I’m thinking of “Trembling Before G-d” and “Blue Vinyl” as two other recent examples of this. Could you talk about this educational component to documentaries?
Kennedy: I’ve been in many experiences where I’ll make a film and then after watching it, people will say, ‘OK, now I get this issue, what can I do?’ “Pandemic: Facing AIDS” started as a film and expanded to an outreach campaign that aims to provide people with an outlet to get involved. I partnered with Nan Richardson at Umbrage Editions and together we created education curriculum targeting high school children, a photography book, an art exhibition, a Warner Music CD, and a web site (pandemicfacingaids.org). With the help of these resources, people can take action; they can learn more about AIDS, make donations, volunteer, write their policy makers, and take an active role in the fight against this pandemic.
iW: This project is pretty vast in scope. How did you pull it all together?
Kennedy: It was very challenging, it was definitely the hardest project I’ve ever made. It was very difficult to get to know people who are living with, and dying from AIDS. But despite the depressing subject matter, we did find hope. After making this series, I felt firmly that the AIDS crisis can be contained if there was the political will and there was enough awareness and resources devoted to the task.
iW: It must have been hard to shoot a lot of these things. How were you able to emotionally disconnect enough to make it?
Kennedy: The goal for me is really just the opposite — I don’t want to disconnect, I want to stay connected. In my approach to making documentaries, I ask a lot of the people whom I’m filming. And I think that it’s important for me as the filmmaker to give also, to stay open to them. Part of the reason I love making documentary films is meeting people in so many different circumstances and learning from them. Of course, I am certainly not having to give on the same level that the people in the film do. But, in order to have a full experience, it’s important to be open and make yourself vulnerable on some level.
iW: Is there a danger in becoming too emotionally connected? Did you ever have to step back and say, “OK, I’m not going to shoot this?”
Kennedy: I respected the characters. If they ever wanted us not to film, I certainly didn’t film. But most of the people we ended up following were very open throughout the entire process. When you’re dealing with AIDS, you’re dealing with some of the most difficult and intimate issues that we face as human beings. You’re dealing with death, sex and sexuality, drug use and addiction. You’re dealing with a lot of stigmatized issues. And so, you’re dealing with issues that create a certain vulnerability for many people who experience them. So just by agreeing to be in the film, and allowing us to follow them, to me, everybody that we did film was being very courageous. After they had made that commitment to the film, it became very important to them as well.
iW: The DPs on the project, Nick Doob and Tom Hurwitz, are legendary figures in the verite movement. [Doob for his work with the Pennebakers, Hurwitz for shooting Barbara Kopple’s best films.] What was it like working with those guys?
Kennedy: They’re great. Nick filmed in Brazil and Uganda, Tom filmed in India, Thailand, and Russia. It was the first time I’d worked with Tom. This was the sixth or seventh project I’d done with Nick. He’s a very close friend and I’ve worked with him more than any other DP, by far. They both have different styles, in the specific, but in the broader sense I think they both have an incredible sensitivity and great eye. We were filming long hours under very difficult circumstances, dealing with a very, very sad issue and filming in very remote places, with different languages and cultures. In India, the average temperature was about 108, 109 degrees. And in Russia, it never went above 20 degrees. So much of the art of filming verite is being connected to the people, the story, the situation. Both of them were incredibly connected, and I think showed a terrific sensitivity to the issue, and had important relationships with the characters. What was also important to me was being able to process what we were going through. Nick and Tom are such great and decent people. I was able to do that with them.
iW: Did you learn anything that surprised you? Did you come out of it with some knowledge that you didn’t expect to have?
Kennedy: Well, I knew going into this that I was dealing with AIDS, and I knew it was a very intense subject matter. In preparing for it, I had read a lot and I knew on paper what we were heading in to. But once I was in the field, out there filming, then and only then was I truly confronted with the reality — real people who are living with and dying from AIDS. It was really, really difficult and unsettling, and raised a lot of very emotional questions about life. I am not talking about questions about how to make a movie; I’m talking about the much larger questions about life and how different people live it and experience it, and the very many disparities… I meet Lek [a former sex work in Thailand who dies from the disease] and think, if she had been born in Brazil, she’d still be alive today. Or if she had been born wealthy in the United States, she would be alive. And just because of the circumstances in which she was born, she’s dead. Two of the people we filmed are dead. That’s the reality of it, and that’s a really tough thing to comprehend. Because neither of them had to die, not at this time. The whole experience challenged my own assumptions about life and made me think about my own experiences and issues. It certainly helps to keep things in perspective. These are big questions most of which are impossible to answer. I wish I could be more articulate about it… I guess I am still working it out, probably always will be.
iW: At some point, that’s why you’re making a movie about it.
Kennedy: Right, thank God I’m not a poet. That is in truth why I do make movies, because in so many cases — pretty much in all cases, the person’s own experiences can shed light on the issues in a way that I can’t. And through their own experiences and words can provide insight.