A Millennial Wake-Up Call
In the Wake of a Shocking Survey, a M•A•C AIDS Fund Film Reminds Youth that It’s Not Over
by Stevie St. John
Photos by Andrew Jenks Entertainment
More than three decades into the HIV/AIDS epidemic, major medical advances could soon usher in an AIDS-free generation. There are more effective tools and strategies than ever before to reduce the viral load of people living with HIV and to prevent transmission of the virus to their partners—provided, of course, that they know their status, seek care, and know about prevention strategies.
But Millennials—an age group that’s key in stopping the spread of HIV–are shockingly uninformed about the disease, according to information released this year by the M•A•C AIDS Fund (MAF), an HIV/AIDS funding organization and the charitable arm of M•A•C Cosmetics.
In conjunction with World AIDS Day, which is observed annually on December 1, MAF has released a documentary called It’s Not Over. The film, which is available for viewing on Netflix, aims to remind viewers, especially young viewers, of the fact put forth in its title: that the epidemic is not over.
The filmmaker, and the documentary’s anchor, is Andrew Jenks, who covered the 2012 presidential election for MTV News. Jenks lays out his goals in a
“I began this project knowing close to nothing about HIV, and worried that a documentary such as this could be dull, or worse yet, become a lecture more than a film. Clearly HIV has an image problem; it has become stale, which strikes me as a catastrophe considering the end of AIDS is in sight.
But the goal of It’s Not Over isn’t to wag a finger or make a PSA, that’s been done. Instead, I want to inspire my generation to care. Fact is, the last decade we’ve seen incredible advances in the fight to end the epidemic, but there is more work to do. The epidemic Is Not Over. Consider that the number of people living with HIV increased by 18% from 2001 to 2011, leaving more than 34 million people around the world to grapple with the disease, many of whom lack access to care or don’t know they are infected.
Raising public consciousness is paramount. That’s where It’s Not Over comes in.
The torchbearers for the film will be my generation, the millennials that have grown up hearing about the epidemic but are increasingly tuning out messages of safety and awareness. Now is the time to engage this group in supporting this final push to end the epidemic once and for all.”
In the film, Jenks highlights the stories of three people involved in the fight against HIV. Its subjects include: Paige Rawl, an HIV-positive college student in the U.S.; Sarang Bhakre, an HIV-positive gay playwright in India; and Lucky Mfundisi, an HIV-negative HIV/AIDS educator in South Africa.
The three represent vastly different experiences. Rawl and her friends readily talk to Jenks about how medication can protect an HIV-positive person’s partner from contracting HIV, and they note that meds can help an HIV-positive woman have a healthy baby. Bhakre calls contracting HIV “the mistake of my life” and, as he is not on medication, reflects on the anxiety he experiences about safely sharing intimacy with his boyfriend. And Mfundisi works to educate youth in Khayelitsha, a South African township that, according to MAF, has some of the highest rates of HIV in the world.
Nancy Mahon, MAF’s director, views the film as a call to action.
“Share it, watch it…do something. Protect yourself,” says Mahon, calling for the tough conversations that need to take place about HIV status and prevention methods.
“How you change people is through other people,” she says. “At the end of the day, there’s still so much stigma about this.”
The release of the film comes just a few months after MAF released the results of a survey that demonstrated just how deep that stigma runs, and that shows how ill-equipped many young people are to make informed decisions about sex.
The survey focused on students ages ten to twenty-four, which MAF notes is “the only population where AIDS death rates are still rising globally.” Per UNAIDS, it’s also a demographic that accounts for nearly one-third of new HIV infections worldwide.
Among the survey’s unsettling findings: less than one-third thought that unprotected sex would put them at risk for contracting HIV. The results also revealed that HIV stigma remains prevalent, with only about half of respondents saying they would treat a friend with HIV normally. Many indicated that they would shun an HIV-positive friend or classmate.
“As bad as I thought it was going to be, it’s worse,” says Mahon, who noted that the stats “are a wakeup call for us….It’s not easy to talk [to teens] about sex and drug use and all those things, but you’ve got to have those conversations—if you don’t have them, it’s fatal.”
Mahon said that a lack of comprehensive sex education programs could account for some of teens’ ignorance about HIV.
“I think that may be a real issue,” she says. “We have to listen on this….We have to ask kids and young people, ‘What is the issue?’ and that I don’t really know….That’s part of what we’re trying to do….AIDS is still relevant and still affects 35 million people’s lives globally.”
We have the medication to end the epidemic, Mahon notes, but ignorance and stigma stand in the way—as they have since the beginning of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
One way MAF is hoping to catch the attention of young people: by working with pop star Miley Cyrus, who next year will release a lipstick to raise money for the organization. Mahon acknowledges that Cyrus, well-known for her “twerking” performance, is controversial but suggested that her headline-grabbing prowess might not be a bad thing.
“We hope that we can really get young people to pay attention…[and] make informed choices,” Mahon says.
For more information about the documentary It’s Not Over, go to www.itsnotoverfilm.com. The hashtag #ItsNotOver is being used on Twitter.
Stevie St. John is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, where she serves on the board of the local chapter of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA-LA).