Living with Slim gives a voice to children with AIDS
By Jessica Ullian
Six-year-old Kizza’s arms and legs are covered with itchy sores, and he scratches constantly while answering questions about his life for the camera. He doesn’t go to school, he says, because he is often sick. His guardians call him names. He contracted HIV from his mother at birth, but was told just last year that he had the disease — known locally as “Slim.”
“What would you want the world to know about Slim?” an off-camera voice asks.
“That it hurts,” he says quietly.
Kizza is one of seven Ugandan children interviewed in Living with Slim: Kids Talk About HIV/AIDS, a short documentary film by Sam Kauffmann, a COM associate professor of film. More than 84,000 Ugandan children are estimated to have HIV or AIDS, according to UNICEF. But Kauffmann thought that to fully explain the problem to an American audience, it was better to tell the stories of just a few.
“When you hear statistics like, there are 26 million in Africa living with AIDS, it just boggles you and you kind of shut down,” he explains. “This film is to put a face on those figures. It’s to make the people real for Americans.”
Living with Slim, which won a special commendation from the Boston Society of Film Critics last month, is the product of a Fulbright Lecture and Research Award that sent Kauffmann, whose film topics have ranged from fatherhood to forced busing in Boston, last year to Uganda. He arrived in the country three months before his classes at Makerere University in Kampala began in March 2004, planning to use the time to make a film. Knowing of the effect that AIDS has had on Ugandan society, he says, “it seemed important do to something about that, the greatest scourge.” When he began to see the stigma associated with the disease — and its devastating effect on HIV-positive children — Living with Slim was born.
The concept is simple, borrowed from one of Kauffmann’s earlier films about children’s relationships with their fathers: each child interviewed answers the same questions about his or her health, family, friendships, and hopes for the future. Working with doctors and AIDS counselors at the government-run Mulago Hospital, Kauffmann initially interviewed about 30 children, all of whom had contracted HIV at birth. The seven depicted in the film were chosen because they represented a variety of lifestyles — rural and urban, poor and well-off, with and without access to medicine — and told some of the more compelling stories.
Stella, 13, says her friends and family won’t play with her because they are afraid of contracting the disease. Dianah, 14, says her brothers often don’t leave any food for her when they eat. John, 13, cries as he explains that people tell him his mother is to blame for his illness, that she did something bad.
Eva, 12, has not told anyone that she is HIV-positive, because she has seen how badly others with AIDS are treated.
“I know if I tell anyone, they’re going to hate me. They will think I’m immoral,” she says in the film. “I have to lie to everyone, and I hate lying. It’s against my religion, and it’s against me.”
Kauffmann filmed each child separately, answering questions asked in their preferred language of English, Swahili, or Luganda by a local AIDS counselor, and then went to their homes to get footage of their daily routines. “It’s a very simple film,” he says. “They’re talking to you. There’s no narrator, no one getting in the way of you listening to the children. That’s where its power comes from.”
Several factors contribute to the stigma and isolation experienced by the children, says Kauffmann. HIV is a sexually transmitted disease, so people frequently associate it with promiscuity, and blame both the adults and the children who test positive. Ignorance about the disease also plays a role, since many people are not sure how else it can be transmitted. And the number of children orphaned by AIDS is so large that families end up straining their resources to take care of nieces, nephews, or grandchildren. But when Living with Slim debuted at the National Theatre of Uganda last May, even people living in the country were surprised by how badly the children were being treated.
As a result, Kauffmann was able to bring about some positive changes even before he left the country. After the first screening, the Ugandan Ministry of Health purchased 400 copies of the film to show at prenatal clinics around the country. When pregnant women test positive for HIV, they can take a drug that reduces the chance of mother-to-child transmission. The ministry thought the film would be effective, Kauffmann says, because “when you see what happens to these children, you just wouldn’t want your child to go through that.”
In addition, after seeing the film, the director of the Mulago Hospital ordered antiretroviral treatments for all the children profiled; previously some had not been receiving HIV drugs because their families could not afford it.
The film has won praise locally as well. “Living with Slim does its work,” wrote COM lecturer Gerald Peary in the Boston Phoenix. “It makes us in the audience think of contributing money and shouting at indifferent Washington: DO SOMETHING!” It was also screened at the Museum of Fine Arts on December 1, World AIDS Day.
The reaction, particularly in Uganda, is even more than Kauffmann had hoped for. “If you make a film, you want people to see it, but you want it to have an impact as well,” he says. “It was really exciting.”
The process was equally exciting for the children, all of whom were eager to participate. Their futures are uncertain, Kauffmann says, and while all of them know what they want to be when they grow up — a doctor, a lawyer, and a tailor are among their choices — not all of them will grow up. At least one subject, Dianah, has since died.
“I think some of them really felt it was their legacy,” Kauffmann says of Living with Slim, “a chance for them to extend their life forever.”