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The HIV Story Project

HIV_teamThe HIV Story Project is a non-profit, multi-platform web-based storytelling endeavor and short film compilation about living with HIV/AIDS at the beginning of the 21st Century. Almost 30 years into one of the world’s most substantial, long term health pandemics, this project brings together individuals living with the disease, non-profit HIV communities organisations and top filmmakers to participate in one of the largest cross-agency and cross-disciplinary efforts around HIV/AIDS the world has ever seen. Based in San Francisco and interacting with online communities around the globe. Their web portal will serves as a platform for global dialogue in addition to providing access to the personal testimonies from the video booth, and films telling the story of the lives of people living with HIV. Elena Jeffreys interviewed the HIV positive Executive Producer, Marc Smolowitz.

San Franciso has been the global epicentre of thinking and approaches to HIV and AIDS - driven by amazing queer activists, outspoken positive people, doctors, academics and affected communities. Tell us about the San Fran movement you envisage portraying in your project and what inspired you to take this on. How will you use the online component of your project to bring in non-English speaking voices from developing countries? San Fran has been accused of trying to speak on behalf of positive communities the world over. How will your project overcome this sentiment and illustrate solidarity?

Our goal is to showcase San Francisco's best practices and innovation when it comes to working with HIV/AIDS treatment, education and prevention and to support a global conversation with organizations around the world also doing cutting edge work in their local geographies.

It is our intention to build a multi-lingual story telling program that welcomes many cultures and languages, just like the City and County of San Francisco. Given that San Francisco has been so substantially impacted by the HIV/AIDS health pandemic, our interest resides in focusing on stories that represent all generations affected by HIV/AIDS. Here is a description of our approach, which includes three main story telling components:

Component #1 - Community Website & User Generated Content Portal:

The HIV Story Project creates a community website and user generated content portal that invites international participants into a dialogue regarding their local perspective on the state of HIV/AIDS. An online video competition invites communities to tell their own short format stories that help inform this creative experiment.

Similar to other thriving online networks, The HIV Story Project portal serves as a social network and media hub for origination and aggregation, encouraging users to comment, exchange thoughts, share experiences, raise awareness and engage with calls to action.

Component #2 – Story Telling Booth / Public Media Installation:

In collaboration with Bay Area HIV/AIDS prevention non profit agencies, The HIV Story Project builds and sets up an AIDS story telling booth. The booth functions like a photo booth but instead of taking photos it will tape video testimonies about people's experiences living with HIV/AIDS.

The focus of the video booth, which will be traveling through different neighborhoods in the Bay Area, will be on the communication between three generations of people dealing with HIV/AIDS: The generation confronted with AIDS in the early days (Eighties), during the peak of the epidemic in the US (in the Nineties) and in the beginning of the 21st Century. The content created with the booth will become part of the web portal.

Component #3 - Short Film Compilation:

The HIV Story Project will commission and funds twenty short films that portray people living with HIV/AIDS from the San Francisco Bay Area - a region that has been deeply affected by the disease. The goal is to deliver a feature length compilation that bridges a diverse slate of stories into one powerful panorama of our times.

The rules are simple: By connecting well known local filmmakers with individuals who are living with HIV/AIDS, the voices of women, men, gay and straight, transgender, young and old, and of myriad ethnic backgrounds will come together to paint an unmatched portrait of how people thrive and survive in the face of long term illness.

Anything goes: From straight forward vérité documentary, to music video, dance film, narrative, experimental film or animation – each piece will be 3-5 minutes in length and will tell a personal story in a truthful and forthright manner. Just as the video testimonials from the video booth, the short films will end up on the web portal.

The HIV History Project proposes that the role of filmmaker is as collaborator and mentor, so rather than leading the story, the filmmaker responds to the story as it is told. How will this work?

Unlike other compilations that begin with the filmmaker's concept, The HIV Story Project begins with the individual living with the disease who seeks to tell their story. The filmmaker is then invited to serve as a creative partner/mentor, as opposed to the sole author. He or she is helping to realize the personal vision of each subject participating in this transformative media journey and to bring to life universal stories of courage, fear, struggle, triumph, and thriving.

The HIV Story Project also engages a broad variety of local non-profit social service organizations addressing the disease from the outset with the objective of ensuring that individuals from every demographic within our communities are well represented within the final film compilation and in the video booth story telling endeavor.

Together, we will identify and invite participants with inspiring and moving stories that reflect the distinct and dynamic aspects of living with HIV/AIDS. Upon completion, the 20 short films for the compilation will be made available locally, nationally, and globally for use online, as a tool in education and prevention, as part of public programs, and for outreach to each participating organization's respective constituencies – either as individual 3-5 minute shorts or as the full compilation.

At this stage, our global partnerships are nascent, but we've received a number of inquiries from contacts in Ireland, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Brazil, Colombia, and South Africa, which we find very encouraging. It is our intention to build a web portal that is scalable and able to host a growing amount of content over time - text, photo, video, audio, blogs and more.

We believe strongly that the HIV Story Project website can be a host to both our own original content and aggregated content from around the world. We plan to manage and present this content using mapping tools & GIS as well as RSS feeds.

In San Francisco, we're also working with local HIV/AIDS nonprofit organisations to train them in storytelling and media production. In particular, the recent economic downturn has meant that many non profit organisations have abandoned their own programs that focus on marketing, media, and creating robust public messaging about HIV/AIDS.

We hope to step in and support these organizations to develop a sustainable approach to creating media, and we plan to showcase our successes and failure online, so organizations can learn from our lessons. When appropriate and available, we'd like to showcase the innovative media strategies of organizations from all continents and help them drive traffic to their efforts.

The US is facing big political changes with health care. How does this impact on people who are positive and access to medications? With the rise on the travel ban, and possible changes to PEPFAR funding, do you think that the 30th year of the epidemic will ring in changes to US policy regarding HIV? Are you feeling optimistic, and do you think your project will reflect that? Or is the project a launching pad for ongoing agitation and activism on HIV? Are groups like Act Up as relevant today as they were a decade ago?

We've been very deliberate about building this partnership around the upcoming 30th anniversary of HIV. We're well aware that anniversaries drive awareness, funding, partnerships and program collaborations. Our main focus is not to advance HIV/AIDS or public health policy, but we're hopeful that good story telling can be a meaningful partner in such ongoing calls to action.

Many of the agencies we're working with are focused on advocacy, and we're interested in helping them effectively use media, video, web 2.0, social media, and emerging technology tools as part of their advocacy efforts. We want to emphasize quality story telling that can engage a dynamic slate of diverse audience, including legislators and funders. If successful, THE HIV STORY PROJECT's content will be made available - when possible - as public domain and open source to relevant organizations for use in their campaigns.

Too many HIV/AIDS campaigns suffer from a lack of ongoing funding, and too many websites get built only to remain static and underutilized. We hope to find solutions to this problem by emphasizing content sharing and interactivity.

HIV turns 30 next year, it is a disease that is now spanning generations. Those surviving HIV in the early years matured into a HIV based community, and many activists from that time are now the older stalwarts of the HIV sector. Not to discount people who become positive later in life in recent years, however people who are 50+ and were in their 20's in the 80's are very well represented in decision making and spokeperson roles in the HIV community. What generation do the people working on your project come from? How does generation/age have an effect on the different viewpoints and experiences of HIV/AIDS? How will you include young people in your project; people who grew up into an existing HIV community and didn't play a role in creating that community in the 80s?

Generally the age of those working on this project currently range from 25 - 45 years old. Further, our advisers and partners represent people from all generations affected by the HIV/AIDS crisis. We're most excited by our interactive story telling booth that will be launched during PRIDE MONTH 2010 as one way we hope to connect with youth and people under 25.

We hope to enroll both LYRIC, which focuses on youth, and MAGNET, an outreach program in the Castro, in our youth program outreach around the storytelling booth. And, we plan to promote the story telling booth in partnership with our local LGBT film festival, which has already expressed interest in our programs.

Who are the crew working on this project and what has drawn your team towards new technologies? What impact has online platforms for video and photo sharing had on visual storytelling and filmmaking?

The HIV Story Project is being produced by a core team of professionals who represent the film, media, nonprofit, HIV/AIDS and LGBT communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Jörg Fockele, our project director, is an award winning producer/director with 20+ years of experience in all aspects of filmmaking, with a track record of telling stories that address the experience of people who are marginalized in both Germany and the United States. 

With respect to similar projects, I have been working on a number of public health content endeavors, notably a documentary film/multimedia experiment called THE POWER OF TWO, which looks at chronic illness, Cystic Fibrosis and organ donation through the eyes of Asian American twins sisters who are both double lung transplant recipients.

I have also produced a number of public health spots and public service announcements in San Francisco, for organizations like Project Inform, Shanti, Project Open Hand, and the Office of STD Prevention at the San Francisco Department of Public Health. I was also the producer of a series of radio public service announcements, television public service announcements and outdoor media for SexInfo, a first of its kind text messaging pilot for youth to receive STD & HIV information and referrals via their wireless device.

Other key members of the team represent leading agencies in San Francisco, such as Shanti and Stop AIDS Project - both agencies that signed on early as community partners of the project that have helped with community outreach and overall strategy. Mom's Pharmacy is also a community partner, and we host most of our community meetings at this pharmacy that serves the needs of HIV/AIDS patients in San Francisco.

The filmmakers on board, so far, include a diverse cross section of award winning directors, including Marc Huestis, who is openly HIV+ (Sex Is...), Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman), Jenni Olson (The Joy Of Life), Johnny Symons (Ask Not), among others. 

The subjects have been recruited through an ambitious set of networking efforts, involving interaction with a diverse cross section of SF Bay Area nonprofits, including:

·        AIDS Health Project
·        Aguilas
·        API Wellness
·        Bay Positives
·        Black Coalition on AIDS
·        Folsom Street Events
·        Glide Memorial Church
·        Healing Waters
·        LIFT
·        Lyon Martin Health Clinic
·        LYRIC
·        Magnet
·        Metropolitan Community Church
·        One Struggle, One Fight
·        Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS)
·        Positive Resource Center
·        Project Open Hand
·        Quan Yin Healing Arts Center
·        San Francisco AIDS Foundation
·        San Francisco LGBT Community Center
·        Strength in Numbers (SIN)
·        St. James Infirmary
·        Tenderloin Health
·        Thriving SF
·        Transgender, Intersex, Gender Variant Justice Project (TGIJP)
·        UCSF
·        Under One Roof
·        Women Organized to Respond to Life Threatening Disease (WORLD)

How can filmmakers and positive people contact your project – what is the time line and when can be expect to begin to see these great films?

People can reach us via email:  thehivstoryproject [at] gmail [dotcom]. We're about to produce the first seven of twenty shorts in the coming 1-3 months, and we plan to begin screening the first shorts in film festivals this summer. People can donate to our nonprofit through the paypal function on our website here

Along with our launch in the summer of 2009, we started networking with HIV/AIDS non profits as well as communication with directors to produce the short films and with individuals to be represented in the shorts. In winter 2009 we incorporated as a 501(c)3 Non Profit Organization.

As of February 2010 pre-production on the first six short films has begun and the video shoots are slated for March 2010. Web designers have been hired to start working on the web portal this month, and we are in meetings with community members and local non-profits to discuss community involvement in the story telling video booth are slated for late this month.

In May 2010 we will have a mini-selection of short films for consideration for the Frameline, San Francisco and OUTfest, Los Angeles Film Festivals. The beginning of the northern-hemisphere summer of 2010 will see the official launch of the web portal along with first screenings of short films from The HIV Story Project as well as appearances of the video booth in store fronts and public spaces in San Francisco, then later in the summer we will continue and finish production of the final short films for the compilation.

This all takes us to 2011 where in San Francisco and beyond, the film making process will culminate in a series of public screenings and media events that reflect upon the 30 year struggle to overcome HIV/AIDS. A 75-minute compilation of the best short films will tour leading film festivals such as the Berlin International Film Festival around the globe in 2011, with additional airings on appropriate television outlets such as Logo/MTV worldwide. 

HIVStoryProject_LogoYou can follow the HIV History Project on Facebook and Twitter and catch the Executive Producer, Marc Smolowitz being interviewed on PozIAm blogtalkradio network on Feb 22nd here. Marc is an Academy Award nominated producer whose track record crosses film, television, and new media production. His chief film credits include two feature documentaries The Weather Underground (2003) and Trembling Before G-D (2001), among others, and he is openly HIV+.

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