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> > > Now+Then: 3 Decades of HIV in Merseyside: a participant’s perspective

5 November 2014

Now+Then is a documentary film that uncovers Merseyside’s journey with HIV from the 1980s to the present day through people’s own stories. Created specifically for the Sahir House exhibition, showing at the Museum of Liverpool Life until 8 February 2015 the film is the culmination of two years work archiving the history of HIV on Merseyside. One of the participants, Cate Jacobs writes about her experience of working with Danny Kilbride, creative director of Thinking Film

photo of a man at the press launch seen from the back watching  a screen showing Cate Jacobs in the film Now+Then

Now+Then is showing at the Museum of Liverpool Life

It’s not often that you get to work with a film maker or journalist who truly wants to tell your story; invariably they have their own story about you they want to tell and will use what you tell them to satisfy their own ends. I have been stung more than once and as an HIV positive woman it has left me feeling very cautious about working with the media. 

So when I was approached by Sahir House, Liverpool to consider being part of a documentary film they were planning to make for their Now+then project – I was sceptical when Danny Kilbride, creative director of Thinking Film, announced that he wanted to make a film that told our stories, in our words!

Thinking Film makes films that are issue based and educational and seek to give people a voice and a platform to be heard. Danny doesn’t send a researcher, extract the bits he thinks will work and then go straight to filming. He runs a series of workshops for participants to get to know him and each other – which Danny says is crucial for building up trust. But also he says that the workshop programme empowers him to have the confidence to tell the stories accurately because he knows them from the inside.  

He has a gentle, quiet presence and listens deeply. From one session to the next he remembers tiny, but significant details of everyone’s stories with surprising accuracy and you are left feeling like he really cares; that your story matters. 

There is an alchemy that happens between us as participants through the workshop process, as our individual stories unfold and meld together as a part of the living history of HIV in our city, we laugh, cry and sing together – yes sing! In one session some of the women share a song written by a South African AIDS activist, as their voices rise to a swell there isn’t a dry eye in the room. It marks a turning point for us all; suddenly what matters most is not being HIV positive but being human. 

And it is that humanity that shines through most in this film and gives it power and relevance in our world today. Reminding people that HIV is an infection that affects us all, irrespective of age, gender, sexuality or ethnicity. 

One of the key things about stigma and prejudice is the ‘othering’ that happens – this doesn’t affect me it’s about you because you are one of them – this film brings HIV home to roost. It could just as easily be about you or someone you love because everyone who participated in the film is just an ordinary person living in extraordinary circumstances.

The film locates HIV in the past, the present and by not giving it a happily ever after, everything’s okay now there’s medication, vibe, it also firmly locates it as part of the future too.

You might wonder how it is possible to achieve these things in an 8 minute documentary film –  well that’s the magic of Danny and his team – they create a framework, a shared vision of how the film might look and then they step back and leave as much space as necessary for people to tell their stories on camera – they shot 5 hours of film. Editing was a process of distillation – capturing the essence of each individual story with delicate tenderness, yet without sentimentality, so it maintains a realness and authenticity.

The film has a strong focus on capturing people’s experiences and stories of living with HIV or working in the HIV field in Liverpool and is of national and international importance, not least because we, as positive people, have been empowered to record our history, in our words, for posterity. Lest we forget!

On a personal note, the project and the film, allow me to set that history down. I no longer feel the need to stand up and tell this story. It is told! I can retire! Move on and tell other stories instead. HIV will always be a part of who I am but it doesn’t have to be all that I am…. and as I step out of the shoes of the AIDS activist, already there are others ready and willing to step into them – as perhaps one of the most wonderful gifts of this film, is that the other women in the film were telling their story for the first time, and through this process, some of them have become empowered to stand up and be seen and heard in the world.

The Museum of Liverpool is hosting an exhibition charting Merseyside's journey through the last 30 years of living with HIV/AIDS. The "Now and Then" exhibition includes photos, objects and first-hand accounts from people who's lives have been touched by HIV.

The 8-minute documentary film made in conjunction with Sahir House to accompany the display. The full film can be downloaded from www.sahir.org.uk/nowandthen

Please click on this link to visit the Liverpool Life Museum website

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