When speaking of the world’s AIDS epidemic, I think it’s an all too common practice of individuals to assume that it’s an issue that is no longer a threat. In the West we assume that the epidemic is under control due to the availability of antiretroviral drugs. However the drugs are not a cure-all, and more importantly, these medications are not widely available. Millions are dying all over the world, mainly in developing countries, because they lack access to this treatment.
As a native South African, I have witnessed first hand the death and devastation that HIV/AIDS has wreaked in this area of the world. Before moving to New York and becoming a filmmaker, I specialized in AIDS public health working closely with communities to create grassroots interventions and assisting in developing a national AIDS plan.
With the fall of apartheid came the hope that South Africa’s HIV epidemic would be contained. Yet this new-found freedom the South African people had fought so hard for has been overshadowed by a new struggle. Today South Africa has the highest number of HIV-positive people in any one country in the world. Nearly 5 million people are infected with the virus, with almost 2,000 new infections occurring daily.
In making State of Denial I wanted to allow the people of South Africa to have a voice. I felt that the television programs I was seeing on AIDS in Africa did not reflect my experience with the epidemic or the people affected by it. I often felt like I was watching a nature program about the mating habits of some exotic species — always with some white, male, foreign correspondent wandering at a distance through the townships telling viewers how things are, or how he sees them without ever getting up close and giving the people the opportunity to speak for themselves.
There is a perception of Africa as a strange, unknown place, with people unlike you or me. I wanted to combat that view and show a different side of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, an inside perspective with South Africans telling their own personal stories. State of Denial introduces you to those people. It takes you into their lives and into their homes. It taps into the universal emotions of anguish, fear and hope and shows you people, not that different from you or me, who are facing a horrific crisis.
Shortly before I started shooting in 2000, South African President Thabo Mbeki consulted dissident scientists who believe that HIV is not the cause of AIDS. Since adopting this ideology, Mbeki has been responsible for the obstruction of efforts to reduce infection rates and has prevented people from gaining access to life-saving antiretroviral medication. Some human rights abuses are obvious, others less so, but none should slip under the radar.
Unless there is political will and leadership on a global scale to address this crisis, this epidemic will not be contained. It is my greatest hope that “State of Denial” will be a catalyst for this change.
— Elaine Epstein, Director