Interview with State of Denial filmmaker, Elaine Epstein
What generally inspires you as a documentary filmmaker?
I grew up in South Africa during the fall of the corrupt political system of Apartheid and witnessed the institution of harsh sanctions, which further isolated South Africa from the rest of the world. As a result of these past experiences I am particularly inspired by stories of struggle involving people who are isolated from the mainstream, yet still triumph over adversity.
When and how did you decide to undertake this project?
As a native South African, I have witnessed first hand the death and devastation that HIV/AIDS has wreaked in this area of the world. Before moving to New York and becoming a filmmaker, I specialized in AIDS public health, working closely with communities to create grassroots interventions and assisting in developing a national AIDS plan.
With the fall of apartheid came the hope that South Africa's HIV epidemic would be contained. Yet this new-found freedom the South African people had fought so hard for has been overshadowed by a new struggle. Today South Africa has the highest number of HIV-positive people in any one country in the world. Nearly 5 million people are infected with the virus, with almost 2,000 new infections occurring daily.
I was inspired to make State of Denial as I felt that the television programs I was seeing on AIDS in Africa did not reflect my experience with the epidemic or the people affected by it. I often felt like I was watching a nature program about the mating habits of some exotic species always with some white, male, foreign correspondent wandering at a distance through the townships telling viewers how things are, or how he sees them without ever getting up close and giving the people the opportunity to speak for themselves.
What were your goals in making State of Denial? What would you like a viewer to understand after seeing the film and what would you like to see happen with the film?
There is a perception of Africa as a strange, unknown place, with people unlike you or me. I wanted to combat that view and show a different side of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, an inside perspective with South Africans telling their own personal stories. State of Denial introduces you to those people. It takes you into their lives and into their homes. It taps into the universal emotions of anguish, fear and hope and shows you people, not that different from you or me, who are facing a horrific crisis.
Shortly before I started shooting in 2000, South African President Thabo Mbeki consulted dissident scientists who believe that HIV is not the cause of AIDS. Since adopting this ideology, Mbeki has been responsible for the obstruction of efforts to reduce infection rates and has prevented people from gaining access to life-saving antiretroviral medication. Some human rights abuses are obvious, others less so, but none should slip under the radar.
Unless there is political will and leadership on a global scale to address this crisis, this epidemic will not be contained. It is my greatest hope that State of Denial will be a catalyst for this change.
What were some of the difficulties and challenges you experienced in making this film? When filming, how do you hold your emotions back when you see injustice or suffering?
State of Denial was a very emotionally difficult film for me to make, but at the same time it was extremely gratifying in the sense that despite the intense stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS in South Africa, people felt so strongly about what was happening that they were compelled to disclose their HIV status to me, and that they did so in such a heartfelt and honest way.
Did your initial theories or feelings towards the subject change during filming? If so, how or in what ways? How do you incorporate (or ignore) those changes into the filmmaking experience?
When I first set out to make State of Denial my main motivation was to give South Africans the opportunity to tell their stories. Shortly before I started shooting in 2000, South African President Thabo Mbeki started questioning the link between HIV and AIDS. So initially the film started out as an intimate personal film but by incorporating the politics it became a much more political film and a strong call to action.
What are you currently working on or what would you like to be working on?
I'm currently working on a film tentatively titled Catch You When You Fall. The film follows the life of a young boy as he navigates the complex road to adulthood while losing his mother to an advancing neurological degenerative disease. The film explores the themes of rights of passage, the parent-child relationship and what happens when a child is forced to exchange roles with his parent at an early age.