State of Denial

PBS Premiere: Sept. 16, 2003Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: What is your motivation as a filmmaker? Why did you choose documentary in this case?

Elaine Epstein
Elaine Epstein: I started out working in HIV/AIDS public health in South Africa, and initially I was doing a lot of research on psychosocial issues and cultural beliefs around the disease. I started to get frustrated because I wanted to be more involved in a hands-on, grassroots way rather than just writing research papers. This growing frustration led me to begin developing HIV/AIDS intervention campaigns based on the research I was doing at the time. Initially these interventions were clinic-based interventions but over time I started doing more media-based education campaigns. I began by developing a magazine targeted at South African youth to educate them about HIV and other STDs and went on from there to develop radio campaigns and videos. I was fortunate enough to work with an extremely talented producer/director who came out to South Africa to film a series of PSAs to educate South Africans about HIV/AIDS. The following year she invited me to work on a HIV/AIDS education video and it was there that I discovered the power of film to move people and to motivate them.

With documentary films you can take the viewer into people's lives and into their homes. You can put the viewer in somebody else's shoes for the hour or hour and a half that they are watching your film and take them on a very intimate personal journey. Using documentary as the medium, State of Denial was able to tap into the universal emotions of anguish, fear and hope and show people not that different from you or I who are facing a horrific crisis.

POV: What generally inspires your interest?

Epstein: I grew up in South Africa during the fall of the corrupt political system of Apartheid and witnessed the institution of harsh sanctions, which further isolated South Africa from the rest of the world. As a result of these past experiences I am particularly inspired by stories of struggle involving people who are isolated from the mainstream yet still triumph over adversity.

POV: What was the most surprising thing to you in making State of Denial?

Epstein: That despite the intense stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS in South Africa, people felt so strongly about what was happening that they were compelled to disclose their HIV status to me, and that they did so in such a heartfelt and honest way.

Also, I'm shocked that it's over 3 years since I started filming and the South African government has not yet started to provide antiretroviral treatment through public sector clinics. Only recently did they announce that they were going to begin planning a program that may take between 5 to 10 years to implement, if they implement it at all. I'm also surprised that what I consider to be one of the biggest human rights abuses of our time has received so little attention. AIDS is subtle killer — it can take many years before someone dies, but ignoring 5 million infected in one country alone and ignoring the fact that 600 of these people die a day is unpardonable.

POV: What are you currently working on or what would you like to be working on?

Epstein: I'm currently working on the outreach campaign for State of Denial and I'm trying to organize a screening tour of the film in South Africa, launching in Soweto. State of Denial was a very emotionally difficult film for me to make, so I decided that I wanted my next project to be on something very different. I'm currently making a film that follows four extraordinary competition taxidermists as they go through the detailed and intricate process of creating their next competition piece. The film begins with their animal selection, and follows them through the search for the perfect specimen, all the way to contending for top honors at the 2004 US National Taxidermy competition in Alabama. I've also started pre-production on a film that examines the idea of applying consumer-branding practices to the Democrats in order to develop a new "brand" for them.

POV: What are your favorite websites related to State of Denial?

Epstein: The Weekly Mail and Guardian ( for updated news on South Africa. It's also good for getting South Africa's perspective on what is happening in the US.