The Positive Side

Winter 2010 

Art Posi+ive: Lights, Camera, Action!

In the film project Positive Take, nine Montreal youth with HIV pick up video cameras and shoot the world as they see it, with the goal of fighting the stigma and discrimination they face.

By Albert Martin

L’ombre du doute (Shadow of Doubt) shares the story of how Emelyne learned of her status while growing up in an orphanage, Maison Shalom, in Burundi. She tells of her quest to get treatment and how lucky she feels that she has access to meds now that she lives in Canada.


EVERY GENERATION needs to find its voice and make a difference, and that is as true in the HIV community as it is elsewhere. The first generation of people with HIV/AIDS (PHAs) had their protest marches and die-ins to demand access to lifesaving treatments. Today’s young people with HIV, raised in the digital era, are using a new generation’s tools to break down the barriers they encounter, such as the ongoing stigma and discrimination associated with the virus.

Positive Take (Prise positive in French) is helping brave youth with HIV tackle these issues with creativity. The project was conceived to help HIV-positive youth in Montreal develop the tools and talents needed to share their experiences using video, a medium that is both popular and accessible to many youth. Earlier this year, nine 20-somethings with HIV took part in the project. They were guided by Kim Simard and Simon Rouillard, two Montreal filmmakers with ties to the city’s HIV community.

The project took shape through discussions between CATIE and various Montreal community organizations on how to give young people living with HIV a public voice. These discussions led to a fortuitous meeting with Simard, who also works with Quebec AIDS service organization Fréquence VIH. It was clear from early on that her experience and advocacy of participatory media as a communication tool for young PHAs would be a driving force behind the project’s success, along with CATIE’s support.

Seropoclub (Club Poz), by Benoit, invites viewers to join a young man on his first visit to an imaginary supper club where HIV meds — and their side effects — are on the menu.

Initially, Simard and Rouillard thought the project was simply going to be about teaching these youth the art of filmmaking. But they quickly realized that the teaching would be reciprocal.

Working with these young HIV-positive men and women, Simard and Rouillard came face to face with the everyday reality of living with HIV. For example, the youth sometimes couldn’t make it to a session because they were sick or had a medical appointment. “It made us understand a bit what it is like for them to live with HIV,” Rouillard says. “We had to adapt to their situation.” Simard, who has worked on other projects addressing HIV stigma, recalls, “It’s one thing to talk about it, but to share the experience of how the virus affects their lives was a huge lesson for me.”

The first, and perhaps most important, issue that Simard and Rouillard faced was disclosure. For many HIV-positive youth, the fear of their status being revealed is a daily reality, and so they often build social and emotional walls to keep their HIV secret and protect themselves. They know that once the news is out it’s almost impossible to control, especially in an online world where information quickly goes viral (pardon the pun) with devastating results. “These youth often don’t have the support of society,” Simard says, “or even of their family.”

In 1 heure et quart (1:15), Dominic expresses the confusion and despair that weigh upon him as he deals with his recent diagnosis. The chaotic and jarring imagery of urban wilderness was shot within months of his finding out he has HIV.

Simard and Rouillard started the project by exploring techniques of visual symbolism — think shots panning up tree trunks toward the sky to represent hope. Telling a story using symbols did not require the youth to expose themselves or have their faces onscreen — in other words, to disclose their status. While some of the final works use this technique, several of the youth eventually included images of themselves in their films. “The creative process seemed to push them to that point,” says Rouillard, who was impressed by the young filmmakers’ courage. “They faced their fears while searching through the house that HIV-positive people build to protect themselves, often despite themselves. They opened a window and said, ‘I am HIV positive, I live with it and I can talk about it.’”

Each film is as individual as its creator. “It was fascinating because initially the stories were based on social messages, but with time, the youth developed stories that were very personal,” Simard says. “In the end, it was self-affirmation that won out.”

The powerful impact of the project might be best seen in what the youth have done since wrapping their films. Inspired by the effect of their films on themselves and others, these young artists turned their attention to creating a film festival focusing on HIV/AIDS. The festival, VIHsion, aims to promote their work and other films and videos touching on HIV/AIDS. They hope that the festival encourages an exchange between HIV-positive and HIV-negative people. For these HIV-positive youth, it might be said that the video camera, not the pen, is mightier than the sword.

The videos produced through Positive Take can be viewed on the CATIE website at www.catie.ca.

Positive Take is a collaboration of CATIE, Fréquence VIH and Montreal youth group JASE (Jeunes Adultes Séropositifs Ensemble). The project was funded by the Community Innovation Programme run by GlaxoSmithKline in partnership with Shire Canada.

Albert Martin is executive director of Fréquence VIH. An HIV-positive writer and activist, Martin believes that art teaches us a great deal about the experience of living with HIV.