RH Reality Interview: Feminist Filmmaker Tackles HIV Epidemic Among Black Women

Emily Abt, a feminist filmmaker, and Mehret Mandefro, studying to be
a doctor, met in London when they were both on Fulbright scholarships.
Emily later turned to Mehret and two of her HIV-positive patients–Chevelle
and Tara–to star in a documentary film about the
epidemic of AIDS among African
American women
. All of
the women involved in the film realized that cultural and social misogyny
takes a personal toll, and that regardless of their background, women
who have internalized sexist beliefs are in danger of being ill-equipped
to protect themselves from the disease. After hearing Chevelle introduce
a ten minute trailer of the film at a downtown reading last month, RH Reality Check’s Sarah Seltzer
called Emily, who’s already busy on her next feature film, to talk about
the lessons she learned making "
All of Us."

SS: After working on a series of films with feminist themes,
what made you want to tackle HIV as your next topic?

EA: I’m very much of a feminist filmmaker! That word sometimes gets dropped
in press coverage, but I wear that title proudly. What inspired me is
that Mehret and I found more similarities than you might think between
our own behavior, our peers’ behavior and the behavior of women who
were becoming infected. The
film is about women’s risky behavior in the bedroom and the social forces
that often create that, or are behind that.

SS: So you believe giving women power is crucial to stopping
the spread of disease?

EA: Absolutely, examining gender inequity as it plays out in the bedroom
and looking at issues of love, trust, intimacy and how those can be
factors in the spread of this disease.

SS: I know you mention abstinence-only policies in the
film. Do you think the spread of HIV among young black women can partially
be explained by a lack of comprehensive sex ed?

EA: Definitely. We end this film with a scene where Mehret and Chenelle
go to Brooklyn to talk to teenage girls. The fact that there is no decent
national sex ed totally inspired me, the side effects from Bush’s approach
to abstinence-only stuff. The film is very much a rallying cry for better
sexual health education and outreach.

SS: You call the completed film the "emergency edition."

EA: Yeah absolutely. HIV is the biggest cause of death for African-American
women ages 18-35. It’s unnacceptable that this
statistic doesn’t merit more public outcry and attention.
When making the film we kept thinking that we’d get scooped, that other
filmmakers and journalists would get the word out. We kept expecting
the New York Times Magazine would do a cover story. That never happened, and
it still hasn’t happened, even though it has taken us four years to make the film. It’s
kind of sad.

My last film was about the human impact of welfare reform. That
film did very well. Meanwhile, "All of Us" hasn’t gotten picked up by a
network. We’re going to see it through, we’re going to do a theatrical
release in September.

SS: Did the hoopla surrounding race vs. gender in the election frustrate
you as you saw that this problem, facing African-American women, was totally ignored during the debates?

EA: The media in general want to simplify things, we get these kind of dichotomies.
This film is specifically about the disproportionate risk that black women
face, but there’s more here. It relates to all women.

SS: The film was originally titled Mehret. Why did you change
it to "All of Us"? How does that parallel journey of the

EA: We had to make sure that audience members didn’t walk away thinking
it wasn’t about them, that it was just about people who were already
at risk. The two patients in the film had faced a lot of abuse and domestic
violence and drug abuse. It was important to us to also look at Mehret’s
personal life, given that she’s Harvard-educated, promoting the film
in a way that demonstrated its universal issues.

SS: What influenced the decision to go to Ethiopia and
look at HIV there as part of the filming?

EA: That was a perk of having Mehret as a subject. She was Ethiopian and
had always returned there, and she has a commitment to doing HIV related
work in Africa. There were real parallels between what’s happening to
women there and here and in the inner city. It’s not the same, but there
were more parellels than you would think.

SS: What was it like working with the women in the film
on a daily basis?

EA: Sometimes it was difficult. I definitely cried a bit and asked a lot
of personal questions. Sometimes they didn’t like that.

SS: You filmed some happy, almost fairy-tale moments,
like Chevelle’s wedding.

EA: It was very important to show both the joy and pain in subjects. Like
Chevelle always says, there is life after HIV. You can live with
the virus, and it’s not necessarily a death sentence.

SS: Since Mehret is training to be a doctor and the film
shows her interacting with her patients, do you think the film might
be used in the medical field?

EA: Yes. We’re doing really well with educational sales, and some of the
institutes that have purchased it are med schools. I definitely think
some people think it should be used in medical school curricula and the like.
It could change the nature of how doctors interact with HIV patients
because it’s different from normal relationships. Doctors know their patients for years and see them
so often.

SS: What will men get out of the film?

EA: One of the main messages of the film is to be sexually responsible.
There are real costs and on the one side you have the abstinence only
movement not explaining things. But on the other side, there’s a difference
between being sexually independent and sexually irresponsible and that’s
an important message for men too. I didn’t get as much access with men
in these women’s lives as I wanted. It speaks to how taboo the subject
is. People aren’t comfortable — it’s challenging to get people
to talk about sex in a real way, not just a sexy fun way.

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  • invalid-0

    This is a fantastic film — we’ve been using it a lot, and encouraging others to use it.

    Earl Pike
    AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland

  • http://www.truthaids.org invalid-0

    Thank you for highlighting this important topic Sarah. I am the physician featured in the film “All of Us”. In your post, you state: “All women involved in the film realized that cultural and social misogyny takes a personal toll, and that regardless of their background, women who have internalized sexist beliefs are in danger of being ill-equipped to protect themselves from the disease.” I know and agree that this conclusion flows logically from the film “All of Us” but it does not reflect the lived realities of the women I took care of, nor my own thinking on this issue. Internalized sexism is not the lens with which to understand HIV, especially among women in the African Diaspora. The women in Ethiopia I interviewed stated that their obstacles to protection were food, lack of hospitals, and providing for their children. The women in the South Bronx said domestic violence, sexual assault and/or child sexual abuse. These are experiences I had never had, so for me, comparing my love life to theirs was humbling and drastically changed the way I thought about using the relationship lens. As for myself, questioning marriage as the only option for women has always been my issue. All these findings didn’t fit the “love” theme so they were left out of the film but as result the frame of internalized sexism will likely be the way most who see “All of Us” view the issue. Thanks again for putting HIV in black women on your radar.

  • invalid-0

    The film maker’s heart is in the right place, I suppose, but the arrogance in her answers reflect an imperialistic point of view. It’s not new that African Americans make up a disproportionate share of HIV infections. It’s not new that African American women account for 70 percent or more of all new diagnoses among women. The epidemic has trended this way for the last two decades. And this film is not the first time this has been brought to light. Years ago, BET ran a couple of documentaries about this very subject. Peter Jennings, before he died, did a segment on this subject. Gwen Ifle raised this very subject in 2004 when she moderated a vice presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards.

    The disproportionate share of African American women being affected by the HIV epidemic fails to make headlines because NO ONE CARES. The media don’t care. Policy makers don’t care. The public doesn’t care. The African American community is just as complicit because, by and large, it doesn’t want to own up to the fact that HIV is ravaging the community. Hard to blame leaders. No community wants to own an epidemic that is accompanied by stigma.

    Your documentary is not breaking new ground. You, like so many domestic AIDS organizations that are enhancing their coffers in the name of preventing HIV infection among black women, are merely using the stats for your own personal gain. Money spent on your documentary would have been better served going to a community-based organization that provides direct services to poor women living with HIV infection.

  • http://www.allofusthemovie.com/ invalid-0

    I very much agree with Mehret’s sentiments that there’s a lot more to high HIV transmission rates among women than internalized sexism. The ‘internalized sexism’ theme to which Sarah refers is what I also call the ‘x factor’ that leads so many women (and men), beyond boandries of race and class, to not practice safe sex. I believe this x factor is crucial to address if we are to seize the challenge of preventing HIV transmission in a progressive manner. As Mehret points out “issues of love, sex, intimacy…” all play into why unsafe sex happens and as the young sister from Brooklyn notes in our final scene “…you can be the smartest person in the world but it just takes that one moment…” This is why Mehret’s inspirational ‘Truth Circles’, featured in the film, are so important. They’re specifically and uniquely designed to explore and address the complicated gender power dynamics that continue to endanger so many women in the bedroom.

    It should be noted that ALL OF US also explores the correlation between domestic violence and HIV rates, the connection between joblessness and HIV, the link between poverty/lack of health insurance and HIV. Part of the confusion relating to the film’s content may be due to the fact that, as Sarah points out, her blog was based on a 10 minute trailer of the film and our quick interview rather than the full-length film which she hasn’t seen yet.

    Reading this interview, I’d also like to clarify what inspired me to make ALL OF US. When I began the film, I had a front-row seat to Mehret’s important work with HIV positive women in the Bronx and I wanted to share that work with a broader audience. Her work also dovetailed with my own commitment to draw connections between women of all races and classes. And lastly, I had a personal desire to understand why ‘All of Us’ often put ourselves at risk in the bedroom against our better judgement.

    Sarah, thanks so much for helping spread the word about this debate-worthy film! Check out allofusthemovie.com to see what we’re all buzzing about. And to the writer of the previous blog, your first take on me was the most accurate, my heart is in the right place.