Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 11 / 15 March 2018

Multimedia project shares intergenerational HIV stories


Jorge Vieto Jr. is a subject in the short film Ritual , directed by Jörg Fockele, which is part of the HIV Story Project. Photo: Courtesy HIV Story Project
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There's a troubling isolation among many people living with HIV/AIDS, said media producer Marc Smolowitz: an isolation based on age.

"When folks were born informs when they entered the HIV crisis," he told the Bay Area Reporter, "and generations are siloed from each other."

In other words, the experiences of LGBTs who first encountered HIV in the early 1980s are so different from those who came of age in the late 1990s that the two groups have difficulty connecting, communicating, or even understanding each other.

As a successful documentary producer and consultant with credits on such films as Trembling Before G-d and The Celluloid Closet, Smolowitz reached out to colleagues to find ways to overcome those intergenerational barriers. The resulting organization, the HIV Story Project, explores the personal stories shared by individuals whom the pandemic has touched over the last 30 years.

This week saw the premier of just one element of the HIV Story Project: an interactive installation called Generations HIV, combining personal testimony reminiscent of the AIDS Memorial Quilt with the connectivity offered by video.

From the outside, Generations HIV looks like a mall photo booth, set up at the Under One Roof store in the Castro; but when you step inside, a custom-built software program asks your age and presents you with a choice: either answer a question about how HIV/AIDS affected your generation, or ask a question of another generation.

Based on their age, the booth matches visitors with questions and stories they might never otherwise have had an opportunity to explore.

Smolowitz is excited about the experiment's potential.

"The world premier at Under One Roof is the first road test of the booth," he said. "I think we'll learn a lot in the next two weeks." Community members are invited to drop by the store during business hours between now and June 30 to participate.

"We have a two-year road map," he added. "We want to take it to places that are very different from San Francisco ... so you can imagine HIV Story Project Dallas and HIV Story Project Minneapolis."

Ultimately, he said, the dream is to participate in the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. The conference is returning to the U.S. now that the country's 22-year ban on visits by HIV-positive foreigners has been lifted.

In addition to the Generations HIV booth, there's more work coming from the HIV Story Project this month: on June 26, a 45-minute compilation of short films produced by the organization will premiere as part of Frameline 34. Directed by such local filmmakers as Stuart Gaffney, Johnny Symons, and Deborah Craig, each film tells the story of a person touched by HIV/AIDS, spanning a diverse cross section of subjects and genres.

The HIV Story Project's ambitions continue: the organization also provides video support and training to nonprofits.

"Our mission is to become the media partner for other HIV/AIDS nonprofits," Smolowitz said. "As we near the 30th anniversary of HIV next year, we wanted to encourage more robust interactive conversations across generations."

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