V. Anderson talks with Sade Oyinade about making educational films that kids won’t laugh at
I don’t remember much about the educational films I was shown as a kid, but I do remember mocking them intensely, both for their overbearing messages and for their out of date language and style. American English changes a lot from decade to decade, and if it’s a little bit off, well, a decade is a long time for a fourteen-year-old. Just as we used to call the Internet the “information superhighway,” I doubt the films were hip even in their own time. I remember one bellbottom-wearing “boyfriend” called his “girlfriend” “Cookie” as he tried to coerce her into unprotected sex at a hippie party, and none of us kids could stop laughing. The most repellent was the who-do-they-think-they’re-fooling-with-this-thinly-veiled-preaching feeling that the films incited.
In spite of the failure of the films, when I was a teenager, there was a great deal of fear of AIDS. Condom use was drilled into our heads at an early age as an absolute necessity. I have a vague recollection of health professionals visiting schools, public figures who were affected by HIV/AIDS, and popular TV show storylines. Although we didn’t learn much about the disease itself, the fear, a fear that spurred the desire to protect one’s life, was there. I’m not sure if teenagers have that fear now. Perhaps it’s simply because they weren’t around when the epidemic hit, or maybe the popular attitude toward HIV/AIDS has changed. The laws, like the old educational films, are recklessly inadequate. They vary, but in most states, sex ed is not required in schools. If it is taught, the focus must be on abstinence until marriage. Only a handful of states require HIV prevention education.
Because this lack of “urgency” among young people is “frustrating and disappointing” to filmmaker Sade Oyinade, and because she finds the rate of HIV/AIDS in African-American communities disheartening (sixty-three percent more African-American men than white men are infected, according to a 2010 CDC report), and because her younger friend’s confession that he never uses condoms shocks her, she chose to direct an educational film about HIV/AIDS. Titled “Who Do You Know?” this short film follows the stories of Kevin and Tre, two young, straight African-American men. The dominant insight of the film is the male perspective. Oyinade was drawn to this particular script, written by her friend Jerry Brown, because “a lot of films talk more about young women and HIV, which is important…but I think the conversations that guys have about it, and whether or not they choose to protect themselves, is really an important part of the conversation.” The behavioral problem of doubting AIDS as a real threat and positing it as a distant one is the basis of the title phrase. Why worry? Who do you know who actually has AIDS?
The realistic, modern dialogue and the narrative, un-preachy feel of the film makes it relatable to its intended audience: middle-schoolers, high-schoolers, and even first-year college students.
“When you’re young, you think you’re invincible,” Oyinade explains, and this story addresses issues of denial, misinformation, and misguided behavior while delivering the message—at the end. “It was important for us to kind of make it so that it had some humor in it and it was very realistic, just like regular people talking. It didn’t come off so heavy from the beginning; even though you’re going to learn something, it kind of creeps up on you….”
It’s written and shot like a regular narrative film, and the characters feel like real people, as opposed to caricatured vehicles of a message. The story is, after all, based in a specific reality: the writer’s experience in college, where a friend confessed that he was worried that he had gotten HIV from someone at the school. Everyone’s basically good; there is no conventional antagonist, leaving that role to misconceptions about the disease and the threat of the disease itself. The possibility of contracting HIV or not knowing that you have it is set up as the problem, and the message is that it’s possible to protect yourself if you decide to educate yourself.
With support from Women Alive, where Oyinade volunteered, La Salle High School, which engages in AIDS outreach projects, and a chance encounter with Otis Jackson’s Soul Dog restaurant while on a lunch break for the TV show Unsung, which she produces, Oyinade was able to lock down locations that add flavor and life to the film.
With a background of work on TV shows like Unsung, which has revived the careers of largely forgotten but talented R&B, soul and gospel artists, and Starting Over, which gave women with various issues the opportunity to turn their lives around, Oyinade has put the greater good at the forefront of her ambitions. “I just want whatever I do to matter—I mean I definitely want to entertain and do things that are fun, but I like doing something with a purpose….” For her next project, she’s optioned the novel Better Than I Know Myself by Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant, the story of a lifelong friendship between three African-American women.
“Who Do You Know?” will show at the Pan-African Film Festival in February as part of Student Fest, a showcase of films that relate to teenagers and feature subjects such as teen pregnancy, AIDS, race, self-esteem, and gangs. L.A. high school students will attend with their teachers and engage in post-screening discussions with selected speakers. Festival screenings are great for Oyinade’s filmmaking career, but what’s most important to her is for this film to reach her target audience, the people who will benefit from watching the film. In addition to the PAFF screening, she will reach out to middle and high schools, hospitals and clinics, and even college freshmen orientation programs across the country.
To Oyinade, impact is most important: “I think there’s definitely an audience for this film that needs to be reminded that it doesn’t take that much to try to protect yourself and to protect others.”
For more information, visit www.wdykmovie.com.
V. Anderson holds an MFA in Film from New York University. She has worked in India, the Caribbean, and the U.S., and is currently based in New York City.