Monday, August 21, 2006

"I have been living with HIV for three years"

I sit beside my friend, breathing in, waiting to tell her the truth.
My palms are sweaty, my breath heavier. Inside my stomach I can feel
the knots turning, the fear rising up my throat. What will she say?
What will my parents say? How long will I live to have to face that
fear, the stigma?

These are the questions that ran through my character's mind for my
team's MTV 3-minute film, which you can view online at and click on "Legends"!!
No- to alleviate your fears- I am not HIV positive, but even just
playing a character who discloses her HIV status to her friends was a
powerful and important experience for me to have. Let me explain..

As many of you know, I am now in Toronto attending the International AIDS Conference, premiering the hero book film that I have been working on during my fellowship in South Africa, participating in an MTV 48 hour filmmaking contest, and following/supporting/hanging out with my friends from Nekkies, the township at the bottom of Africa, Beaty and Siphiwe. My first two days back in North America felt surprisingly more like a culture shock than I was expecting, both good and bad. The good- walking around feeling safe, especially at night, seeing my parents and aunt and uncle, the coffee, the free wireless internet…and the bads- remembering the culture of consumerism that exists, remembering how much money there is here in North America and feeling how unfair the world is…My first two days, until my parents got here, I actually spent most of my time in the hotel room!

And then on Saturday I premiered my hero book film at the Pre-Conference Symposium focused on children. I was nervous to show my 15 minute piece and yet eager to see how people would respond, if they would "get it." And I have to say, the premiere in my eyes was a "smashing success!" I actually could not have been happier with how people- most of them working in the field with children- responded to my film and to hero booking in general. As part of the hero booking
resource pack, there is one film by Stan Watts that is an animated, fictional character who goes through hero book making. Then we showed my film which features three kids who have made hero books (from MadAboutArt), what they put in their books and what they said about hero booking. Together, these two films showed both what hero booking
is and how beneficial and powerful a tool it can be for kids. I easily gave out the 25 DVD's of my film and how requests for more! After working on this film for months, overcoming my own fears of telling a story and especially of editing my own piece, it was so so validating and affirming to see how people responded. This was in many ways the purpose of my whole time in South Africa- to make a film for Jonathan about hero booking that he can use at conferences- and I can say it felt very useful and successful for that! We're still putting the final resource pack together but I hope that any and all of you can see my piece when it is all done, email me if you'd like a copy!

Even with this amazing start to the conference, the most powerful experience for me was participating in the MTV 48 hour film festival. Basically, 48 youth delegates from around the world got put into eight teams and in 48 hours had to write, film, and edit a three minute film on an HIV related topic. My team's topic was Myths related to HIV, which is a fun but broad topic. We decided on three main myths we wanted to debunk: 1)Showering after sex does not prevent HIV transmission…this was a direct response to South Africa's deputy president (like VP) Jacob Zuma who had unprotected sex with a young family friend who he knew was HIV positive but thought he was safe because he showered afterwards….2) showing the fact that 50% of new HIV infections occur amongst people under 25…and 3) the myth that HIV = death. For me this third one was the most personal because it feels like one of the most important ways that I have changed since my time in South Africa. In the US, we learn statistics, we learn of the epidemic and what a terrible toll it is taking on the most vulnerable populations. And it is terrible, especially when so much of it can be prevented.

But what we don't hear are the stories of hope, we don't see people living proudly with and despite HIV. For me, befriending and becoming closer and closer with Beaty, I am seeing this. There are so many hardships that she faces, even more than I could put in an email, and yet she remains hopeful, she is an inspiration to her community and to me. So when my team decided that I would be the one in this third myth scene to disclose my positive HIV status to a friend who just found out she too was HIV positive, there were so many issues that came to my mind. First, this could be seen by millions of young people on MTV's website and channels- and some may actually think that I was not acting (ha, it's even funny to put that since my acting was, well, let's just say I won't be needing an agent any time soon) and people may think I am HIV positive. At first I felt sacred and vulnerable about this, about "disclosing" my status. And then I thought- this is what Beaty is doing during my filming, but she is not acting. For me, to be in front of the camera and putting myself in that vulnerable situation was critical. Still, when the camera is off, I know I am not HIV positive, but it was important to taste the fear of the stigma that people face when they disclose.

Anyhow, I could go on and on. All 8 films showed at the MTV studios and though we did not win, I was proud of our film. I was most moved when- during my part when I say, "I am still here and I will be here for a long time," the audience started clapping in support (it was the only time they did this during all 8 films), which I can't say how wonderful that made me feel…not about my acting skills, but about the positive message we are trying to put out, that I want to put out both in that film and in a film I will make- that we can be positive about HIV…regardless of our status, in order to decrease the stigma so that more people get tested, so that more people find support, so that more people will talk about it, get educated, so that less people become infected…

Being in Toronto has been an amazing and affirming experience. I feel myself changing, both in my awareness about HIV and about the world. It reaffirmed my desire to use film to promote positive change (whether about HIV or other passions), and that the future is in short films that can be distributed on the internet, downloaded onto our ipods or phones…It brought me closer to Beaty and Siphiwe who, though they enjoyed the conference, also had a hard time being away from their community and their families. I find I have so much more to say and I'll send pictures as soon as I can, but maybe I'll stop here and send another email update from New York, where I will be August 21-28!!

I send my love and hope I didn't scare anyone too much by the title of my email, though perhaps it is good for each of us to challenge our own beliefs about HIV, who gets it, and why…

Monday, August 07, 2006

quickie update

August 8, 2006

Hello to everyone! This will be the last email update for a bit because tomorrow I am jumping on an airplane again (I think it's about my 40th in the past year but who's couting?) and head back over to North America!! As we speak (rather as I type) my final cut of the Hero Book film is burning that I will premiere at the Toronto International HIV/AIDS Conference!! I know I just sent updates, so I just wanted to give a few quickies from the last email:

First, Beaty, Siphiwe and I got accepted to the MTV film festival at the conference where we will be put into teams with youth around the world and, in 48 hours, make a film about HIV. According to the producer they tried not to take white Americans/Europeans so I'm very excited to meet the people and to network with MTV! Also, MTV was so excited by Beaty's story (who isn't?) that they want for her to be one of the three people they follow before and during the conference for a 30-minute show on MTV!! Since it was last minute and they coulnd't send a crew, they asked me to do filming for them! Now, there are no gaurantees they'll use my footage, but this past weekend I drove up to Knysna to film specifically for MTV and if they like it 100,000's of people will see my footage!!! Very exciting , as you can tell from my many exclamation points.

Next, and read this if you are in NYC (which so many of my loved ones are)- I am 80% coming to NYC sometime in August 21-28!!!! This is not sure yet, and depends on if I can push my flight back from Canada a few days, but there are things I need to take care of there and mostly see people I love and re-center my soul, so if you are in NYC, hopefully I will be seeing you in a few weeks!!! i can't contain my excitement about that one....

Finally, I got two emails from previous host families that I thought I'd share with everyone...they are pertinent, especially these days....I'll attach them below...

Until then, I miss everyone, I love everyone. Thank you for all your support whether about South Africa or about editing or whatever- it feels great to be where I am, and even if challenging at times, still a privilege and an adventure...

Okay, I know my emails recently have been more updates than moments here, which i will try to change, but the emails, as I feel at times, have to be all over the place...


This is an email from my Moroccan host father:

Dear Maital
we are so happy to have finally the possibility to communicate with you, to receive knews about your health and your activities. We send you an e-mail, in december 2005, without success... anyway, we are so proud about what you did (Arab-Jewish Dialogue Group, movies and scolarship) and we are sure that, with all you qualities, you are going to surprise the world!
Sakina also began to be too active: she is a member of two associations, Caritas (help to subsahariens migrants) and AMEJ (help to young girls in difficulty) and she has a lot of ideas of activities!
Youssef success in his exams and he will be next year in high school (i found the traduction of "lycée" in your dictionnary!), studying science.
Abdallah stopped breaking glasses: he is still unruly, but so sweet!
I will present my doctoral thesis next year, if God want, but I also began to write poetry and I am sure that you can be a great subject of one of my poetry!
Nezha and her sister Doha send you their salutations.

Maital, you have for ever a great place in our hearts, and you are an example, in all our conversations, of a way to communicate with others cultures, to learn the best of them and to transmit the best of your own culture, and all with a magic smile!
So, please, try to return in Rabat : we miss you so much!
Your moroccan family

and from my Kenyan host sister from 8 years ago:

hey gal i just wanted to holla at you

was up!!

missed you how are you doing it has been solong since
we ever communicated well I have a mobile phobe may be
you can call me on Kenya 0721746542. do you remember
your black sister Leiya everyone is fine hope you


regards Leiya