Sunday, February 20, 2011
Government-Supported Documentary Exposes AIDS Discrimination in China “Together”
FEBRUARY 19, 2011, 6:00 PM ET
Tainted blood transfusions in the late 1980s infected an estimated 22,000 Chinese, the U.N. reports, causing the government to take notice. But it wasn’t until 2003 that Wen Jiabao became China’s first premier to shake hands with an HIV-positive victim.
Director Gu Changwei (“Farewell My Concubine”), winner of the Berlinale’s 2005 Silver Bear, resolved to cast real HIV/AIDS victims in all extra and supporting roles for his 2011 film, “Tale of Magic.” Gu secured government funding to commission filmmaker Zhao Liang to document this process and expose the ongoing discrimination such victims face.
We met with Zhao Liang to discuss his documentary, “Together” (在一起) which showed this week at the Berlinale out of competition.
The Wall Street Journal: How did you come to make this documentary?
Zhao Liang: I didn’t go looking for this film. [Director] Gu Changwei actually asked me to make this documentary. It was something he wanted to do himself…I didn’t particularly want to work on an assigned topic like this—I don’t like it when other people give me topics…so at the beginning I didn’t agree. But I really like [Mr. Gu], he’s kind of an idol for me and I wanted to study how he works, so I eventually agreed.
Why did you choose to talk to so many HIV/AIDS carriers through chat rooms?
I didn’t really have a desire to know about AIDS in the beginning…Eventually I worked hard to discover people with AIDS, discover what the disease was like, what their lives were like…Talking to them in online chat rooms allowed me to really delve into their experiences and conversations. It was interesting to see how hundreds of people used [chat rooms] to discuss such a taboo subject in a place where they couldn’t see each other. It’s easy to discuss secrets and find people to discuss them with online and to tell your own stories.
What did you personally learn about HIV/AIDS?
I wanted to understand the state of mind that surrounds having this illness, some were suicidal or were in suffering. They couldn’t imagine telling their families what was going on. Some of them would talk about the side effects of taking their medications, about losing so much weight, about all levels of difficulty. That would get you thinking about how personal it all was, how painful. Being someone who got AIDS–I started thinking about if that were me, about not having any options…There were people [in the chatrooms] who tried in vain to commit suicide.
Was it difficult to get support for the project?
This is a very interesting topic. For Gu Changwei and Jiang Wenlii [lead actress and Mr. Gu’s wife] they’re celebrities in China…From the outset they were able to secure public funds to make this. Of course, that’s not to say that this could have happened if they were normal private citizens…[Gu] wanted to really give serious consideration [to the problem of AIDS] and from the beginning had official support from the public health department.
How did people you knew or met react to your making a documentary about HIV/AIDS?
In my experiences I never had anyone exclaim “Oh, why are you doing a film about AIDS?!” I never had this experience. Rather people would ask “What kind of a disease is it exactly?” and be very curious.
China just surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy. Why has it developed so quickly economically but it still lagging behind in the way it handles discrimination against HIV/AIDS victims?
This is because economic development has moved too quickly…In China during the mid-80s, the [health] system was still very backwards. There were a lot of blood transfusions where people got AIDS and people who got AIDS didn’t know they had it. …This is a reason why China’s number of infected persons is so big…The idea came up that it was “illicit” people getting the disease –homosexuals, “these kinds” of “bad” people …This gave AIDS victims a sort of nameless obscurity, giving them a bad reputation…Theoretically, there were laws against [tainted blood transfusions], but carrying through on those was very difficult. You would need proof of getting the disease from [the transfusion] but you’d have no evidence.
Ok, so the federal government’s giving money to make this documentary is a sign of progress. But the film still contains several stories of discrimination from public departments at the local level. One guy is let go from his job as a policemen when his boss finds out he is HIV positive, another women reports that a hospital refuses to treat her broken hand when they find out she had AIDS.
Yeah, theoretically if we’re friends, and you have AIDS, I wouldn’t have a problem hanging out with you. We could be friends, no problem…But say, if we got in an accident and my friend has AIDS, the hospital might not treat him but just tell him to go…This goes back to the legal system situation. In theory, the governmental regulation now is you can’t fire someone for having AIDS …But there are still places where they’ll fire them anyways, or a college won’t accept you…There are still these situations. It’ll take some time to improve.