A planet under siege: the powerful documentary Pandemic examines the impact of AIDS around the world.
Ever since the early 1980s, when the so-called general public first became aware of the worldwide disaster now known as AIDS, the watch-cry "We've got to put a face on this disease" has always been in the forefront. And the reason for that was because, in the West, AIDS first made its appearance among gays--a community whose representation in the mainstream had always been kept at arm's length.
When the death of Rock Hudson supplied this mainstream with a face, it was that of a celebrity. But then came the stories of "unfamous" gays as well. And as the years went on, films as diverse as Longtime Companion, Philadelphia, An Early Frost, Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt, Silverlake Life: The View From Here, and Zero Patience have offered a variety of faces, both real and fictional. But in 2003 something new is sorely needed. And this is where Pandemic: Facing AIDS, a documentary by Rory Kennedy, offers an invaluable service.
The five-part Pandemic surveys a health disaster--one that currently takes a life every 10 seconds--with a forthrightness that, while never sensational, spares us nothing of the pain AIDS causes. Spanning the globe, the film takes us to India, Thailand, Uganda, Russia, and Brazil to meet individuals who are remarkable only for their willingness to share their humanity in the midst of suffering. And what may be even more remarkable to many is the fact that only one of them is a gay man.
First we're taken to Uganda, where AIDS has left a generation of orphans in its wake--many of them infected, most of preschool age. In Russia, we meet Sergei and Lena, a couple of recovering drug addicts who seroconverted through needle exchange. Trying to make the best use of the time they have left, as the country's medical services are woefully inadequate, they devote their energies to AIDS-awareness demonstrations. In Thailand, a particularly heart-wrenching example of the pandemic's toll is found in the story of Lek, a former sex worker trying to see her family one last time before she dies. Most shocking of all is the story the film finds in India of a truck driver who became infected through intercourse with the prostitutes he met on his route. His wife, determined to have a child at any cost, demands that he impregnate her--even though it will bring about seroconversion and risk the creation of an HIV-infected offspring.
Last but far from least we meet Alex, a gay Brazilian who, while rail-thin from the disease, is doing fairly well thanks to his country's extremely well-run medical system, which supplies free drugs for the HIV-infected who cannot afford them. His upbeat attitude and good relationship with his family--even though they claim never to have "accepted" the fact that he's gay--are a heartening sight, particularly in contrast to the horror the film unflinchingly discloses in its other stories. Freely cutting back and forth between each country and case in question helps cushion the blow, but there's no getting around the fact that Pandemic: Facing AIDS is often difficult to watch. It is, however, very necessary to watch, particularly for those still under the impression that AIDS is a "gay disease" that has been "cured" by protease inhibitors--or worse still, for those who don't believe in HIV, for as Pandemic shows, HIV believes in you. And only frank awareness of the disaster AIDS has wreaked--and a willingness to take action in response to this disaster--can stop it.
Ehrenstein is the author of Open Secret: Gay Hollywood, 1928-2000.