By: Shannon Clarke
You’re in a nice restaurant, having a great conversation with the person you’ve been out with two, maybe three times when they lean across the table to say, “Before this gets serious, you should know: I’m HIV positive.”
Actor Charlie David (Mulligan, Dante’s Cove) knows how he might’ve reacted and isn’t proud of his answer.
“I would’ve been very fearful and I may have been somebody who walked out the door,” he said. “I had to face my own stigma in relation to HIV that I didn’t even realize I had.”
The film is a candid look at four young adults living with HIV and asks its audience to not only imagine hearing the news, but delivering it as well. As of 2009, approximately 65,000 Canadians are living with the disease.
“I wanted to evoke a message of hope and caution,” David said, after the screening.
Though they are all affected by HIV the experiences and struggles of the subjects are unique.
How does one disclose their status to the person they’ve been seeing and when? Jesse Brown, 21, addresses the difficulties of dating in “positive-negative” relationships. He is the director of a youth AIDS advocacy group in Vancouver.
Austin Head, 27, takes part in a clinical study, and receives treatment for the virus free of charge. It’s a route popular with young adults who are HIV-positive, many of whom are unable to afford the medication. Once treatments are approved, however, the price tag is hefty. Head is told his medication will cost up to $1,500 a month.
At the time of filming, Christopher Brooks, 24, was unemployed, living at home and hadn’t told his mother his status. But he shares his story with millions on his YouTube channel, TheRedLife. Brooks battles the stigma of being gay and black in the United States.
Finally, the film introduces 19-year-old Rakiya Larkin of Victoria, whose mother is living with the disease. She speaks publicly about HIV awareness and prevention, and was a second parent to her brother when her mother’s treatment made her too ill and tired to get out of bed.
Through them, David aims to put to rest the myths and misconceptions about HIV – particularly that it is a death sentence.
The documentary takes care to distinguish between HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and AIDS (Acquired Deficiency Syndrome). The two are related, and often used interchangeably, but the difference is important, especially to those living with the former. HIV only becomes AIDS when the body’s immune system can no longer fight back. When HIV is managed and treated, the risk of transmission is low. Much, much lower than it was in the ’80s, when the disease first appeared.
The legacy of that era has left a stigma around the virus, particularly on the LGBT community (Brown remembers coming out to his mother, who said, “Just don’t get AIDS”). Before the screening of Positive Youth, Still Here, a mini-documentary from Alex Camilleri, tells the story of Randy Baron, who lives with HIV and watched his partner, Mel, suffer and die from AIDS in 1989.
The virus, once mistakenly affiliated solely with homosexual males, is now publicly associated to all unprotected sex, shared equipment for drug use, unsterilized needles for tattooing, piercings, even acupuncture, and exposure in medical facilities. Last May, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Greece arrested and tested 130 women for AIDS and arrested 17 over concerns about drug use and unprotected sex in unregistered brothels. The publication of the names of 12 women who tested positive for HIV have outraged human rights groups.
Advanced knowledge of the disease has increased the odds of living with HIV and preventing the number of AIDS-related deaths. According to Public Health Canada, the number of people living with HIV in this country increased 14 per cent between 2005 and the end of 2008.
Positive Youth covers the basics and puts faces, names and voices to a situation most people hardly think about, though David acknowledged that it only scratches the surface and is lacking in diverse socioeconomic perspectives. The subjects aren’t rich, but they can’t speak to the experiences of millions of people without access to antiretroviral drugs or knowledge about safe sex practices. More than half of all people living with HIV are in Sub-Saharan Africa.
But it’s an important first step in ending a stigma that persists, 30 years later, about HIV.