Harriet Hirshorn is a documentary filmmaker with a focus on social justice issues. She has chronicled HIV/AIDS activism in Africa from 2001–2013, and her work includes extensive coverage of AIDS activists. Hirshorn’s documentary work includes dozens of short films about HIV and a variety of digital projects about HIV/AIDS and women in Africa. Her films include “Mississippi I Am” (2010), “The Disappearance of TiSoeur: Haiti After Duvalier,” and “Pote Mak Sonje (Whoever Bears the Scar Remembers): The Raboteau Trial.”
“Nothing Without Us: The Women Who Will End AIDS” will premiere at the 2017 Doc NYC film festival on November 10.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
Hh: “Nothing Without Us” is the first documentary to tell the story of how HIV+ women on two continents turned a devastating diagnosis into a fight for survival — and a movement to end a global epidemic.
The film takes viewers into the twin hearts of the current HIV/AIDS pandemic — sub-Saharan Africa and Black America — to meet five women who transformed public health policy with their refusal to accept a racist and sexist status quo. Featuring an all-female cast and an exciting mix of new and rare archival footage from Burundi, Nigeria, New York, and Louisiana, this inspiring documentary traces the journey from private grief and political oppression to community leadership and collective action.
“Nothing Without Us” reveals the unsung work that HIV+ women do, not only for themselves but for children and men — from inside prison, out on the street, in the fields of healthcare, and in the highest halls of government. Along the way, viewers come to understand that the AIDS crisis — where women are more than half the epidemic worldwide and two-thirds of new infections globally, and which now affects more than 37 million women and millions of others worldwide — is far from over, and that no solution will be complete until it addresses the complex realities of all women’s lives.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
Hh: In the ’90s I was involved with filmmaker Mary Patierno and helped care for her brother David Miller until his death in 1993. I was the associate producer of her film “The Most Unknowable Thing,” about David’s struggle with AIDS that Mary finished in 1999.
Like many people of my generation, and particularly gay and lesbian people, I was traumatized by the fight-to-the-death taking place around me and I was active in Actup. Some of the archival protest footage of civil disobedience at the beginning of this film was shot by Mary and I.
To celebrate the ten year anniversary of the HIV Law Project in 1998, I made a ten minute documentary for its founder Terry McGovern about the HIV Law Project and the campaign to change the definition of AIDS to include illnesses experienced by women. In the late ’80s when AIDS was devastating communities, women who had HIV could not obtain an AIDS diagnosis, and therefore could not access services and rights because all of the studies up until then only involved men. AIDS was perceived as a gay — and white — male disease, when in fact women and communities of color were experiencing the same devastation.
Actup started a campaign to change the definition, and Terry McGovern and the HIV Law Project sued the Us government. Many years later, they won.
Fast forward to 2001, when I met Marie de Cenival, Vice President of Actup Paris and leading member of their international committee. She was focusing on getting AIDS drugs to Africa as she was about to address the first Un Special Session on AIDS in the first meeting of what became the Global Fund to Fight AIDS Malaria and Tuberculosis.
From Marie, I learned that among the millions of Africans living with HIV and dying from AIDS, there was a strong and active movement in which Actup Paris had been heavily involved since 1996 to get HIV drugs including ARVs — antiretroviral “cocktails” — into countries hardest hit by the pandemic.
When I accompanied her as she researched economics and intellectual property laws, I witnessed firsthand many women living with HIV who were leading their countries’ activism. I realized the extent to which this was an untold, unacknowledged story and wanted to make an inspiring film about their work.
Really, I would love to make a series of portraits that would bring to light the amazing stories of thousands of characters. But in this film I had to choose only five.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
Hh: I want people to see that the end of AIDS actually is possible and that if everyone was on ARVs, HIV would end.
I want people to think about that without women, the end will not be possible.
The majority of Americans believe that AIDS is over. Besides the isolated and distant coverage of it — the recent spike in opiate-using populations in the rural U.S. and the growing epidemics in Asia and elsewhere — most still think that AIDS is an issue contained in Africa or a disease affecting only gay men.
Such misconceptions are dangerous, fueling ignorance and dismissal of a health and human rights crisis affecting nearly 37 million people worldwide — more than half of whom are women. Until the general public understands the full scope of AIDS and its entanglement with issues of poverty, race, reproductive justice, global inequality, and discrimination against women, no solution will be complete.
The film restores women activists to their rightful place in the historical record and asserts the current, unaddressed urgency of women’s needs surrounding HIV. The film reveals the parallel struggles that women face across continents fighting for reproductive justice, healthcare access for all, and a more complex and realistic view of how the epidemic affects women. Anyone who cares about gender inequality and its impact on social and health crises will see a vital message in this film.
I want audiences who leave the theater to be talking about that, as well as how to get a maximum number of people to see the film since distribution is always the next challenge — how to get the film to people who need to see it.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
Hh: I was surprised that the knowledge gap between the general population and the people involved in HIV activism was so huge, and my biggest challenge was how to include a maximum amount of information without making a film that was too dense for a general audience to digest.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
Hh: I bumped into Terry McGovern in Kenya when I was filming Rolake Odetoyinbo for a short piece on preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV that I was producing for The New York Times/Herald Tribune. I had been following Odetoyinbo for several years already and I told Terry that she was an amazing activist in Nigeria, and Terry listened. Many years later, she invited me to submit a proposal to the Ford Foundation on both African women’s activism and African American women’s activism.
W&H: What does it mean for you to have your film play at Doc NYC?
Hh: It is tremendously exciting and I hope we sell out.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received
Hh: The best advice I have received is to persevere and have faith in my vision, and the worst advice I have received is that the world doesn’t need another documentary on AIDS.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
Hh: My advice for other female directors is to pursue their vision and not listen to the naysayers.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
Hh: I am a huge fan of Chantal Akerman and Agnes Varda. I could write too many pages and stop all other activities for weeks to explain why I love them so much. The nutshell version would be Akerman for her obsession and originality, and Varda for her discipline and philosophical daring. Both of these women I feel have tremendous courage and faith in themselves and their films are daring and indicate a lack of fear of failure.
W&H: There have been significant conversations over the last couple of years about increasing the amount of opportunities for women directors yet the numbers have not increased. Are you optimistic about the possibilities for change? Share any thoughts you might have on this topic.
Hh: I’m not optimistic because so many talented women filmmakers exist and yet it seems like we have decided that there are a limited number of slots for them on our radar.
As a member of the Paris-based group La Barbe, I think we have to protest the male domination of the domain of filmmaking. I don’t think it is enough to just try to make our films and fight our way. I think we also need to underscore the lack of women wherever we see it because I don’t think it’s about not being good enough. I feel that there is an old boy and new boy’s network that tries to shut us out, even when it’s unconscious.
I also believe that one way to fight this is to make the commitment to hire women in production and post-production when possible. This worked well for me. I am proud of the women who worked with me on this film and grateful for their vision and their support.
Doc NYC 2017 Women Directors: Meet Harriet Hirshorn — “Nothing Without Us: The Women Who Will End… was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.