Keep the Promise: The Global Fight Against AIDS

The Culture of AIDS


Promises to Keep

A New Doc Helps Build Momentum
by Chael Needle

Keep the Promise: The Global Fight Against AIDS, a new doc, gives its viewers a front-row seat to the front lines.

Filmed during the inaugural Keep the Promise Rally & March, which was organized by AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) and took place last July in Washington, D.C., as the XIX International AIDS Conference was starting up, the documentary is the fruit of a collaboration between AHF and the HIV Story Project, a San Francisco-based non-profit founded by Marc Smolowitz and Jörg Fockele that helps HIV/AIDS organizations and community-based artists to develop media, marketing, and messaging across multiple platforms.

Let’s get loud
The film intercuts shots of speakers and performers on stage at the rally with interviews with activists and experts from around the world, all of whom came to D.C. to implore government officials to keep their promise to fund HIV/AIDS-related research, treatment, and prevention and to ensure lower drug pricing. They came to D.C. to find strength in numbers and unity in difference. They came to remember those lost and to renew their calls for action. They came to inspire and be inspired. They came to multiply their voices. Both accomplished filmmakers and media gurus, Keep the Promise directors/producers Jörg Fockele and Marc Smolowitz capture the movement’s still-building momentum and amplify a still-relevant message.

Written by Chris Metzler and narrated by Margaret Cho [A&U, September 2000], who also emceed the rally and marched with participants down Pennsylvania Avenue, the film combines live action, often with different shots fused by split screens, with motion graphic sequences, courtesy of Josh Kurz, that provide clear and compelling timelines and facts about global AIDS, region to region.

The filmmakers realized that utilizing these sequences could help transport the viewer to diverse contexts and provide a “powerful, statistical, visual frame” around the human stories related by the interviewees, shares Smolowitz.

Although thousands attended the rally and march, and many more attended the conference, the filmmakers were conscious that multitudes of activists would not be able to come to D.C. and that the film could be another way to experience and tap into the energy, shares Smolowitz. We wanted “to remind them, through the stories of our activists from around the country and around the world, that they are doing great work in their home communites and to keep them excited, to keep them activated and inspired to keep working on the homefront, wherever they live and wherever they are.” Fockele adds that many are living in communities that are not supportive and stigmatize those living with the virus; for them, the film can serve as a reminder that they are “not alone.”

In the film, we meet activists like Max Bros from Tampa, Florida; Veronica Brisco from Chapin, South Carolina; and Jenny Boyce from Durban, South Africa; and experts like Dr. Chhim Sarath, AHF Bureau Chief, Asia Pacific, and Dr. Zoya Shabarova, AHF Bureau Chief, Europe, among many others. We hear speakers at the podium—Tavis Smiley, Cornel West, Rev. Al Sharpton—and a video message from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And performers like Wyclef Jean, spoken word poet Roxanne Hanna-Ware, and cheerleaders and drummers help the participants create some beautiful noise.

Fockele says that they wanted to make a film where experts, celebrities, and activists had equal footing. “We wanted to treat everybody alike in that regard—they were all in this together. Everybody is an activist. Everybody has a story to tell around HIV and AIDS and how it’s affected their life.”

Diverse voices populate the film, solos that momentarily step out from the chorus. “As a filmmaker that’s how I was experiencing the week,” says Smolowitz, “I would meet people from different countries and, regardless of who they were, whether they were an activist or a doctor or someone in the media, it made me want to know more about them: What is life like in your country, in your city, where you live, around HIV and AIDS? So I felt we had an opportunity to give a panorama because the budget and resources it would take to go to South Africa, to go to Estonia, to go to Cambodia would be huge and it would take many, many years!”

Global stories, refreshed
That kind of globetrotting, film-finding trip is on Smolowitz and Fockele’s wish list, however. It would be a logical extension of the HIV Story Project’s mission, which, in part, is to build community through sharing stories, whether through local or global networks.

The project, started in 2009 within the San Francisco/Bay Area community, has helped organizations create PSAs and fundraising event videos, and it has also provided video production training for non-profits, a social media and blogging workshop, and produced community-based content, like its video series of San Francisco Board of Supervisors Election 2010: HIV Community Listening Sessions. It also encourages local artists and individuals deeply affected by HIV to tell stories about surviving and thriving through the medium of short film; one result is the feature-length compilation, Still Around.

Says Smolowitz: “We’ve been refining our mission over time, these last four years. Initially, in 2009 we both saw an opportunity. There was this terrible economic downturn happening and we were reminded that HIV/AIDS non-profits were having to cut their budgets. The first thing that they cut were line items for marketing, messaging, [and] outreach at a time when they need those things the most!

“Locally in San Francisco as we set out to make Still Around, our first film, we embedded in the local non-profit community and saw this real need to provide support with media production, with digital strategy, with social media, with helping staff, volunteers and boards at these organizations shore up infrastructure, which they had lost because of the economic downturn. In that sense, suddenly, we found ourselves not just as filmmakers providing help but actually providing a critical service where there was a hole.”

Even as the economy has improved, the HIV Story Project has reason to be still around, the founders realized. Says Smolowitz about the project’s sustainability: “We’ve actually built an infrastructure that is here to stay, that can be about using media in interesting ways to combat stigma around the global HIV/AIDS crisis.” The founders envision that this could become a multi-city, non-profit franchise, an HIV Story Project embedded in and attuned to different communities affected by HIV/AIDS.

The HIV Story Project also gives everyone an opportunity to tell their stories and share concerns through its interactive Web community, which includes, for example, user-generated content culled from Generations HIV, the HIV Story Project’s touch screen video-based storytelling booth where participants can share stories, ask questions, answer questions—teach and learn and come together. It also produced Keep the Promise Webisodes for on-line viewers.

Of course, the HIV Story Project will continue to look for film projects, and especially stories that communicate present-day struggles and

triumphs, particularly ones that show individuals living and thriving with HIV and AIDS. For the filmmakers, it’s a conscious shift away from the recent spate of films about the history of AIDS, important as those are. “I think it’s particularly important to continue what we’re doing now, making films as stuff happens, right here, right now, and chronicle as it is happening and unfolding” says Fockele about projects like Keep the Promise. “People in the future will appreciate this.”

Activism in real time
Both filmmakers were inspired by the new generation of activists who joined the old guard at the rally and elsewhere in D.C. Fockele was emboldened by the fact that all came together, all were committed to the fact that the fight was not over, and all were humble but fired up and ready to take the message back to their communities. Smolowitz was inspired by the demonstrations throughout the week and the city’s impactful messaging during the conference. “I felt that there was a very strong sense that activism is alive and well and that there is still fire in the belly….” Smolowitz, who has been involved in activism since the 1980s, was heartened to see communities of color worldwide were out in force and that diverse individuals were truly invested in collaborating for each other’s best interests.

AHF knows well how to bring together a vast network of different communities. Not only is it the largest non-profit HIV/AIDS healthcare provider in the U.S., but it provides treatment and advocacy support for over 200,000 individuals living with and affected by HIV/AIDS in twenty-eight countries. AHF partnered with the HIV Story Project to document the rally and march because the organization knew that it was going to be a historic event, filled with many “magic moments,” and of course that documentary film is a way to reach people where you can’t in many other ways, shares Terri Ford, AHF Senior Director of Global Policy and Advocacy, and who appears on-screen in the film to share her expertise and served as executive producer on the film.

Ford continues: “We knew there were going to be many, many personal stories that were going to be involved in it, mainly of the advocates that we were trying to empower to bring their voice to Washington. So when we were planning the march and [we knew] that we were going to end up bringing people, disenfranchised people without a voice, to Washington on planes, trains, and automobiles—and buses—we knew that there was dramatic messaging there that could possibily have an impact on people to understand the message, that these people are really crying out for our President and our world leaders to keep the promise on AIDS.”
Ford hopes the film wakes up an audience that may not be aware of the current challenges in the fight against AIDS and who may think it’s okay to pull back on support. “Many think mistakenly that HIV/AIDS is under control, which it’s not. There are still many, many people who can’t access care, particularly in the South. And the majority of people coming in on trains and buses into Washington were from the South and they are in a crisis, particularly African-American women. Their voices are not being heard.…”

Says Ford: “We’re not going to go quietly. And this is the message of the film. This march happened last July and it’s still pertinent today, this minute. It’s gotten worse.What we were talking about on the stage, what we were fearing, is happening.”

Since the first rally and march, Ford points out, President Obama has become the first American president to cut back on global AIDS funding, which has resulted in the shuttering of PEPFAR-funded clinics and testing initiatives. Some who are funded by PEPFAR are even afraid to speak up for fear of losing what little funding they have, attests Ford. Lives are being lost; health is put at risk. Scaling back now is inexplicable to Ford, especially at a time when Congress on both sides of the aisle is united in its support for HIV/AIDS, as a recent D.C. lobbying effort by AHF reconfirmed for Ford.

Smolowitz and Fockele have seen this widespread and engaged support, too, particularly when Keep the Promise had its world premiere earlier

in the year at the Vail Film Festival, a mainstream venue that could have easily shied away from a subject not known for being a popular draw. The filmmakers share that festival attendees kept approaching them with praise for the film—how it affected them, how it helped them understand the enormity of the global AIDS crisis. “And the conversations would go a little deeper and I realized, I’m talking to people from all political backgrounds and affiliations,” says Smolowitz. “It was an interesting reminder that when it comes to health and illness that all of us have been impacted regardless of where we sit on the spectrum of experience and ideology.”

Keep the Promise will have its West Coast premiere at Outfest in Los Angeles on July 20, and Smolowitz and Fockele are looking ahead to World AIDS Day 2013 as an opportunity for the film to be shown at more venues. They’d also love to work with AHF to distribute the film through its global network so that those who could not make it to D.C. realize that they are not alone in the fight.

The film has the potential to multiply the effect that the rally and march had on those who participated. Terri Ford already sees a positive impact on activists who are now organizing new Keep the Promise marches. “They’re stronger. They’re empowered. They feel they’ve been given a voice. They feel like somebody cares about them. It’s a really great thing,” says Ford. “People speaking up is what it takes to stop a bad thing from happening. And that’s what we’re trying to do. And we’re hoping the film plays an important part in that.”

Visit and for more information. Watch the trailer below!

Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.