A few weeks back I carried out 3 days of the most gruelling but moving interviews of my recent career.
I remember my agent laying it out for me at the very beginning. I was being asked to help 11 men talk about being HIV positive.
‘That’s tough’ I thought, but then I was told they would be half-naked and surrounded by a big film crew whilst being body-painted. I remember raising my eyebrows a little and saying to myself ‘That’s not tough that’s…really tough…but wow…okay let’s do it.’
Nothing could have prepared me for the intensity and exhaustion we would all feel during the long days of filming as we knitted together these eleven amazing, powerful and important stories.
It turned out that the shirtlessness and busy set were not the only factors the stars of the show had to contend with. The location was a warehouse in a busy part of London, sitting directly below a thunderous flight path and gripped like a piece of tofu in chopsticks between a constantly rumbling railway line and a siren-polluted side-street.
Imagine asking someone about the most difficult moment of their lives and then asking them to pause and start again…
It is a testament to the patience and quiet tenacity of the Burger Productions film crew, the support of the background team and most of all, the gentlemen themselves, that we were able to make the films resonate with such honesty and emotion.
The truth is, the distractions are standard on any shoot and they didn’t matter. If I heard an approaching train, plane or automobile I might have silently sworn at the ill-timing but then I’d see the man in front of me and the reminder was there: this matters too much to let a few noises get in the way. This guy is incredible and he’s got to have his voice heard. He’s talking about something that goes to the very heart of his life, his loves, his past, future and present…and the health and survival of his own exposed body.
The short films show men of all ages and from around the world putting themselves in a vulnerable situation and showing themselves to be strong, in charge of their own health and excited about the future. That’s a message to be celebrated.
We all hope their bravery and honesty will help other men to be aware that, while HIV is now a controllable virus, it is still a threat to your health in many often overlooked ways.
Congratulations to the team at Gilead for creating such a smart, thoughtful and impactful campaign.
So stay fit and healthy and please, watch the films.
25-year-old Riccardo comes from a small conservative town in rural Italy. He had his first gay relationship when he moved to London but was quickly told he was HIV positive.
He told his mum he was gay and HIV positive on the phone then 3 days later his father called. “He couldn’t believe it,” Riccardo recalls. “He asked me ‘do you like men or women?’ I said ‘Dad I’ll call you later I’m with my boyfriend.'”
Riccardo’s parents supported him and tried to help him access the best medication. Today he says he’s planning to become a chef and look after his diet.
Riccardo says: “HIV is just a part of me because it doesn’t really affect what I like to do in my life.”
Marcello is 45 and from Italy. He worked for a cruiseline, travelling the world. Then he fell in love.
“I met someone. I trusted him. But then he forgot to tell me something…he was positive.
“The world shut down and I found myself in a black box with no light.”
Then a nurse found him and took his hand. “I told her ‘my life is finished’ and she took me in an area where people are diagnosed with terminal cancer and she said ‘you see you are lucky if you are doing the right therapy you will live a regular and normal life. It was a wake-up call.
He has a message. “Live your life because life is such a great gift.”
Marcello says: “HIV is just a part of me because it didn’t change my life.”
Bisi Alimi was diagnosed in Nigeria where both HIV and homosexuality carry a heavy stigma. In his video he remembers: “The moment the doctor looked into my eyes and said ‘you’ve got HIV’ I kind of resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t gonna be around for long.
“I was very afraid to start treatment because that means that I have to compromise about my sexuality in a way for me to access treatment because being gay in Nigeria isn’t only illegal it’s socially unacceptable.”
Bisi had already risen to fame in Nigeria as an actor and then, incredibly, he decided to come out live on TV. He was beaten as a result and was told to flee the country.
“I was physically attacked, not once, not twice but many times. Arrested by the police and almost killed. And that was one of the few times I spoke to my mum and she said ‘you’ve got to get out of the country.'”
Bisi says: “HIV is just a part of me because it has given me the opportunity to be in control of my health, to know my body better and to live positively fabulous.”
32-year-old Graeme from Liverpool became tearful in his interview remembering his diagnosis. He says: “I put my head between my knees and I didn’t burst into tears I just burst into laughter. It was like a car crash.”
Graeme has a personality disorder and struggled with his mental health before and after his diagnosis but he says dealing with the virus has made him stronger.
“My initial reaction was just like a flood of questions. I got a phonecall off me dad and he said you know it doesn’t matter what you are and what you’ve got you were there for me when I was diagnosed with cancer. you supported us in the family and we’re here to support you and that was really when I felt that me and me dad really started to connect with things.”
Grame says: “HIV is just a part of me because I’m a brother, I’m an uncle, I’m a creative, I’m a public speaker. There is more to me than this virus.”
Antonis from Greece’s diagnosis couldn’t have come at a more difficult time. He found out he was HIV positive the day after losing his job and the day before losing his father.
He says: “I didn’t have much time to think about what it meant having HIV. I felt like HIV was nothing and losing my father was…real problems.”
Antonis’s Father died of lung cancer from smoking but his diagnosis didn’t make him quite and start taking care of his over-stretched and broken heart.
“I ate junk food daily. I did smoke a lot. I started smoking even more. It was definitely a self-destructive phase.”
Then Antonis turned his life around. He lost 21 kilos after going on a diet and stopped smoking. he says: “I did wonder one day if my heart would just give up and go ‘pop'”
Antonis says “HIV is just a part of me because I’ve dealt with it and it’s not running my life anymore.”
Wojciech is 71 and from Poland. He was married for 15 years and has 3 children. He met his first gay love in Mexico in 1986 whilst on a work trip.
His boyfriend told him too late that he was HIV positive and Wojciech waited 6 months before opening his test results.
“I thought that I will die soon in the end of the year.”
He was mugged in Mexico and came back to Poland for medical treatment.
“I didn’t want to meet nobody. I wanted to die.”
But Wojciech didn’t give up. He became an HIV activist in Poland and made new friends and connections.
Wojciech says: “HIV is just a part of me because I caught it many years ago and I am still alive.”