In-depth: Haiti and HIV: "Gen espwa" - new hope dawns

HAITI: Using the power of the cinema to spread the word on AIDS

Photo: Anne Isabelle Leclercq/IRIN
Movie magic
port-au-prince, 26 October 2007 (PlusNews) - More than one in four Haitians believes HIV can be transmitted by supernatural means, so using the magic of the movies may be one way of opening people's eyes to the reality of the pandemic.

"Haiti is a country dominated by the idea of magic, where almost no disease or natural death exist," said local moviemaker Arnold Antonin, who wrote the award-winning film 'Le Président a-t-il le sida?' ('Has the President got AIDS?').

"It is very difficult, when this notion of illness and death is so ingrained, to tackle the problem (of AIDS) in a rational and scientific manner."

Antonin's film has nevertheless had a big impact in Haiti, one of the world's poorest countries, where two in five adults are illiterate. It tackles belief in the supernatural head-on, and also takes a swipe at those in power who abuse their authority.

'Le Président a-t-il le sida?' tells the story of Nina, who falls in love with Dao, a young Kompa (Haitian popular music) star and heartthrob. He is dizzy with success, and burning the candle at both ends, believing that voodoo will protect him from HIV. Nina manages to convince Dao that he is deluding himself, and supports him when he tests positive for the virus.

The filmmaker wanted to address many issues through their story, and that of Larrieux, a politician who thinks that he can have whatever he wants. "The first message was that AIDS is a very real illness, against which we can protect ourselves, using condoms, for example," he said.

It is a message well worth promoting in Haiti: according to a study by the Haitian Institute for Children, 25 percent of women and 15 percent of men believe there is no protection against HIV. Many, especially in rural areas, think that becoming infected means someone has been "sent an AIDS death".

Go to a doctor

Antonin wanted to encourage his fellow citizens to "go to the doctor if you have AIDS, or if you think you have it; don't go to see a witchdoctor or a [religious] minister". His film also aimed at encouraging respect for women, the main victims of HIV and of violence in Haiti.

He opted for a film drama rather than a documentary to tackle the lack of AIDS awareness and the stigma related to the disease. "I have produced documentaries about children with AIDS, sexual behaviour and pregnant women; but documentaries have limited scope here, as people are not interested in them, they don't feel it concerns them," he explained.

"With fiction, you can strike emotional chords and feelings and people identify with the characters. The messages aren't direct, but they are better received."

In a tree-lined square at Place Boyer in Pétionville, one of the most affluent suburbs of Port-au-Prince, the capital, a small group of young people were passing the time chatting amiably. They had all seen the film and were unanimous in their appreciation of it.

"I like the fact that Nina [the heroine] does not give in, even though the old guy [Larrieux] has money and Dao [the hero] is a famous handsome singer who fancies her. She is right," commented a young woman, who was immediately heckled good-naturedly by her male friends.

The young man sitting on the bench next to her said the film had opened his mother's eyes. "She was always saying that AIDS was a punishment - we argued about it - but since she saw the film, she hasn't said that any more," he laughed.

Antonin took inspiration from his own experiences to write the screenplay: "I'd seen lots of friends get struck down by AIDS in Haiti, people from all walks of life ... it was a real catastrophe for me."

The film was shown for the first time in 2005, and he said he felt more optimistic these days: "People's mentalities are starting to change, people accept that AIDS is an illness and should be treated as one."


See also: Fighting HIV a task as tough as the island
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Using the power of the cinema to spread the word on AIDS
Links and References

Country Profile: Haiti
Human Rights Watch
The Synergy Project
Global Fund in Haiti
PEPFAR in Haiti
UNAIDS Country progress report
National survey on mortality, morbidity and HIV/AIDS
Panos Institute of the Caribbean
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DFID - UK Department for International Development
Irish Aid
Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation - SDC