Interview with Sophie Harman Producer of “PILI” – Social-realist film on women with HIV in East Africa

Opening in cinemas on the 12th of October, PILI is the first social-realist feature film to focus on women living with HIV in East Africa, and is a unique collaboration between the film-makers and women in the film to tell the story of the community by the people who live there. The film is based on their stories, the cast features only one trained actor, 70% of the cast are HIV+, and all locations such as the AIDS clinics are real.

Led by a female director, female producer and predominately female cast, PILIthe extraordinary film about a young woman struggling to change her life in East Africa, will be released in select cinemas across the UK on 5th October.

Pili lives in rural Tanzania, working in the fields for less than $1 a day to feed her two children, and struggling to manage her HIV-positive status in secret.

  1. How did you get involved in the project?

The project stemmed from my research on the global politics of HIV/AIDS. I’ve been working in this are for nearly fifteen years and became increasingly frustrated at the lack of attention to the everyday lives and risks for women living with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. I wanted to make visible the everyday lives of women living with HIV/AIDS and to do so in a way that they could tell their own story and connect with as big an audience as possible. I was able to source research funding for the project from an AXA Outlook Award and the rest of the project spiralled from there.

  1. When deciding on how to tell the narrative what made you/ filmmaker decide to use this method?

Like most academics who make films, I initially planned to make a documentary; it was Director Leanne Welham who pitched the idea of making a narrative feature. I really liked the idea: it fit with my ambition to appeal to as many people around the world and also helped address some of the ethical knots with making a film like this, e.g. the women in the film are actors depicting a story and character rather than directly depicting their own life.

  1. What was the reason behind using this group of women to highlight the plight of those suffering from HIV, not just in Africa?

There were two reasons for using this group of women. The first was practical: I had contacts in this particular part of Tanzania and was known to key leaders in the area so was trusted by the community. I also knew some of the issues that people living with HIV faced in the area and how the wider health system worked to support their needs. As a consequence people were happy to meet with me and didn’t think I was some crazy mzungu wanting to make a film with no idea about their lives. The second was I was aware of other great films about HIV that concentrated mainly on men (We Were Here, How to Survive a Plague, Philadelphia), and a few on women (Fire in the Blood, Nothing Without Us). I really like these films, but wanted to tell a more everyday story than that of a specific campaign or period in the history of HIV/AIDS.

  1. People are not talking about HIV in the west like they used to what is it that makes HIV in Africa important to bring to the attention of the world?

The majority of people living with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa and the majority of funding that supports HIV/AIDS treatment, prevention, and support comes from western states. It is important to talk about HIV/AIDS globally, both to show how far the response to the disease has come and how pressing these issues are for millions of people around the world. Changes in western and African governments could lead to change in how HIV/AIDS is seen and funded; it is thus vital that awareness of the issues around the disease remain in the public’s attention.

  1. Please share some stats, where is the highest rates of HIV in Africa, and what are the barriers to building prevention awareness?

Best source for stats is UNAIDS  http://www.unaids.org/en/resources/documents/2018/unaids-data-2018

For general overview is also https://www.avert.org/

  1. When using only one real actor in the film where they any moments that you found difficult while making the film?

The actors involved with the film were brilliant, committed and professional. It is a testament to their commitment and the talent of Director Leanne Welham that their performances are so compelling. People often struggle to identify the professional actor! It was tricky when half the crew did not speak Swahili fluently and the cast did not speak English, but we had two excellent translators who also acted as production assistants. The more difficult moments came when shooting sensitive scenes that emotionally resonated with some of the cast or when shooting had to be suspended because of the loss of a family member from the community. The difficulties you see ‘Pili’ encounter in the film – low-level bureaucracy, traffic accidents, waiting times and delays, blackmail – all played out in different ways in the production of the film.

  1. If there is one message you want the film to convey what would that be?

Women living with HIV/AIDS facing stigma, struggling to balance their own health needs, work and their children, hoping for something more are not alone.

To get tickets.

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