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Taking Giant 'Steps'to Address AIDS in Africa

By Tom White

From Portia Rankoane's <em>A Red Ribbon Around My House</em> (20011 part of the Steps to The Future project that addressed AIDS in Southern Africa. Courtesy of Musaben Film and Video and STEPS

It’s been said that from thought to expression lasts a lifetime, but in a mere year and a half, a corps of commissioning editors, broadcasters, funders, filmmakers and activists from Scandinavia, Southern Africa, Europe, Australia, Canada and the US worked together to create a package of some 40 documentaries, PSAs, experimental films and music videos that address the AIDS pandemic in Southern Africa. The project, Steps for the Future, takes a bold leap forward in the notion of international co-productions and activist media making.

The genesis for Steps for the Future came from Finland, in the person of Iikka Vehkalahti, a filmmaker and commissioning editor from YLE TV2. Although thousands of miles—and seemingly many worlds—apart, Scandinavia and Southern Africa have a history of collaboration in several areas, including filmmaking. During the Apartheid era, Scandinavian nations were very active in supporting the struggle, both financially and through filmmaking workshops. This relationship has continued in the post-Apartheid era; in 1997, Vehkalahti and his colleagues worked with filmmakers from seven Southern African nations to produce several short films. The spirit of cooperation between the regions is also based on simpatico: “Many in Southern Africa and in the Nordic countries…are outside of the major poles of power and culture, meaning UK, France and the US,” Vehkalahti notes. “We both have the same struggle to reach the international markets or get the attention of the big production companies around the world.”

Vehkalahti had not made films about the AIDS pandemic in Africa before the Steps for the Future project, but a couple of years ago, when he went to Southern Africa with his wife, a journalist who was writing an article about the subject, the idea for the project first took hold. “My wife asked me to go to one of the biggest hospitals in South Africa to interview some of the doctors about the question of transmission of the HIV virus from mother to child,” Vehkalahti recalls. “I still remember…the mothers with their small babies, and the doctor telling them of the situation—that they would not be getting medication that would prevent their children from getting the HIV transmission. I just felt that was so cruel. How can that situation be? At the same time, being a commissioning editor in the documentary world, I had no proposals coming from Southern Africa on the issue of AIDS. Through working in Southern Africa, I knew that there were many talented filmmakers who really wanted to study and work in film.”

So the combination of a dire situation in Southern Africa, a wealth of talented filmmakers in the region and a lack of resources to document the stories emerging from the pandemic inspired Vehkalahti to approach the Government of Finland for substantial funding for the project. Finland said yes, and the other Scandinavian nations—Sweden, Denmark, Norway—soon followed suit, as did the Soros Documentary Fund, Danish Film Institute and Swedish Film Institute, among others. At the same time, Vehkalahti was securing international broadcast distribution; TV2 Denmark, ARTE (Germany), BBC (UK) and SBS (Australia) were among the first to sign on.

Mette Hoffman Meyer, commissioning editor from TV2 Denmark, notes that the way the project was presented helped to sell it: “The idea came along that we make the films from a positive view, about living with AIDS, not dying. That was the basic idea—the theme should be HIV/AIDS and life in Africa, and the overall philosophy should be that life is a beautiful thing.”

With that foundation of support, Vehkalahti next recruited Don Edkins, producer from the Cape Town, South Africa-based Day Zero Film & Video, who, as producer of Steps for the Future, would manage the project in Southern Africa, and Pierre Peyrot, from Paris-based Mondopop, who, as associate producer, would coordinate the presentation of the project at international AIDS conferences. By August 2000—five months after Vehkalahti first thought of the idea—he, Edkins and Peyrot had crafted a budget and a program concept.

One of the first ideas that Vehkalahti and Edkins agreed upon was to have filmmakers with international co-production experience—called “professional supporters”—on board to work with Southern African filmmakers. “We were trying to give an opportunity for young filmmakers to gain experience in documentary film production through actually working on a production because we have so few training possibilities in Southern Africa,” Edkins maintains.”We don’t have a film school, and this was one way we could allow people to gain experience, by having the support of other professionals.”

In November 2000, the Steps team announced a call for submissions at the Sithengi Film Market in Cape Town, and in January and February 2001, professional supporters and commissioning editors conducted workshops in Johannesburg and Cape Town as part of the selection process—“Not workshops telling that we want these stories to be told this way, but workshops at which we actually just discussed what the story was, had a dialogue about how to start a film, and showed films and talked about the structure of a film,” Meyer explains.

American filmmaker Jennifer Fox was recruited early on to lead workshops and serve on the selection committee. “The idea of the project was that there has been a lot of HIV and AIDS education in South African companies. But it’s not working,” she says. “The model of Steps is to try a different approach. Let’s tell really good stories with clear characters with whom a viewer can identify. Through these stories, the viewer will go an journey and may become more moved to take action in terms of HIV and AIDS than they have before. That was a model that in some ways was new for South African broadcasting.”

By the end of March 2001, the Steps team had selected the films, based on a number of criteria—regional representation, range of experience, gender and racial diversity and, of course, the stories. Edkins recalls, “Pointa that we kept on discussing were, ‘What is local? What is international? Does that affect the way the film is structured? Does that affect the actual story content or the choice of the stories? How is a local film an international film at the same time?’”

The target completion date for all the films was set for mid-November 2001—a year after the project was first announced. A daunting timeline, to be sure, but one that, at least in the minds of the Steps team, would galvanize the creative process. “It put a lot of pressure onto everybody,” Edkins admits. “But I think it generated an energy. It had become quite a community of filmmakers—not just in Southern Africa, but with all their professional supporters around the world. They all felt that they were contributing towards a collection of films which they hoped would make a difference, both in their content matter and in the way we approach our filmmaking in Southern Africa.”

The professional supporters were rotated from film to film. Fox, for example, worked on five of the films, in capacities ranging from interviewing to shooting to editing. The commissioning editors were also involved in the process from early on. “It was important on a few levels,” Edkins explains. “One, to involve them in the project, so they would get to know what was happening in Southern Africa to awaken the interest and deepen the involvement. Secondly, it was very important for the filmmakers here to get to know commissioning editors from outside Africa and build up a network that is likely to remain in place for many years, and be expanded upon.”

For Johannesburg-based filmmaker Jane Lipman, whose film Mother to Child chronicles the experiences of two pregnant HIV+ women in Soweto, working with Fox and Catherine Olsen from CBC (Canada) was an education. Having produced news documentaries for CBC, Lipman was used to working on short timelines, but she was not as experienced in cinema vérité and the kind of intimacy that approach can elicit. The resulting film, which went into production in August 2001, was a hybrid of sensibilities—the efficiency of news programs and the intimacy of vérité. “It’s changed the way I want to make films,” she maintains. “I suppose that I would do now what Jennifer does, which is get close to people over a period of time and try to reflect the drama of their lives over a longer period of time.”

The main challenge for Lipman in making Mother to Child was securing the trust of the protagonists. Disclosure of one’s HIV+ status on international television, moreover, deterred many from participating. But it was the counselor who worked at the HIV Paranatal Clinic—who was HIV+ herself—who convinced the women in the group of the value of disclosure. Nevertheless, the boyfriend of one of the protagonists delayed the airing of the film in South Africa—that is, until he finally saw the film and was impressed with its social and educational value.

Edkins and HIV/AIDS Coordinator Alosha Ntsane devised a series of workshops for these types of situations, knowing that participating in these films, for some, would be a highly risky endeavor. “We’re running the characters through workshops, so that they can reflect on that process, tell us what it meant to them and also help work through the matter of disclosing on film in such a public way, so that they bring up their fears, their hopes, their problems, their difficulties,” says Edkins. There is such a large amount of discrimination, and we don’t want anybody to be even more discriminated against for taking a role as a character in one of the films.”

Many of the characters are accompanying the films on tours to remote areas in Southern Africa, as part of the massive grassroots distribution effort that the Steps team has developed with AIDS service organizations. The presence of the characters on stage with HIV/AIDS educators after the film has sparked spirited discussions about living with HIV. To further facilitate the viewing experience, the Steps team has created captioned and dubbed versions of the films, as well as film guides, in the languages of the region. Roughly 30 percent of the budget for Steps for the Future is slated for this regional distribution effort, which goes to schools, churches, mine hostels, villages and townships.

The international Steps tour continues as well, with stops at the international AIDS conference in Barcelona in July and the G-8 Summit in Nova Scotia later this summer. While 20 international broadcasters have signed on for various components of the project, the one glaring absence is the United States. PBS has shown some interest, and Fox and Steven Segallis of Thirteen/WNET New York are hoping to develop a two-hour magazine format special, with excerpts from some of the films.

A project like Steps to the Future—the speed, energy and passion with which it was assembled and executed; the breadth and depth of the international consortium of supporters and filmmakers—has left a legacy on the region it was most designed to serve. “The training of young filmmakers has worked out so well, that any monies we have coming back in through further international sales will also go towards further training, as well as expanding the outreach program,” Edkins notes.

“We need to say, look, as filmmakers we took this step to create a collection of films,” he continues. “We will make them available in as many languages as we can. We will train our people how to use them in community situations, that then it’s up to the communities to work with them. Young filmmakers want to go on to other stories, other topics. HIV/AIDS is certainly the most pressing and important to deal with, but people want to look at their lives from other aspects as well. So we will try to continue to work in that direction.”


Thomas White is editor of International Documentary.