Pandemic: Facing AIDS is difficult to watch. It sickens me like a George W. Bush speech and angers me like a David Horowitz column. While it claims to be a glimpse at “reality,” offering powerful interviews, emotional pleas, and useful information, it also fails to provide political and economic contexts for the pandemic. Its tendency to reduce the issue to individuals—in particular, the suffering and ignorance of victims—limits its analysis.
This isn’t to say that the DVD doesn’t provide useful information, including an “AIDS Resource Guide” that features dozens of links to web pages. Narrated by Danny Glover, Pandemic tells five stories about AIDS’ devastating effects, as well as some remarkable survivals, from around the globe: Sergei and Lena (Russia), Alex (Brazil), dozens of orphans (Uganda), sex workers (Thailand), and Nagaraj & Bhanu (India). While it focuses on examples that extend beyond the Western “gay paradigm,” the film still omits any interrogation of the intersections of race, nationality, gender, economics, history, politics, and sexuality. Rather, it focuses on specific damages by the disease, and the failures of individuals to intervene against the deadly disease.
Specifically, the film reveals how individuals and communities ostracize those stricken with the disease. For example, as Lena and Sergei march through Moscow in an effort to educate, they must endure catcalls (“Drug users deserve AIDS”). In Thailand, the men interviewed seem unfazed by the spread of the disease, blaming women who “choose” sex work. In Uganda, neighbors ignore those who are infected. In each location, the film presents individuals who see AIDS as a tragedy of someone else.
Providing much detail as to the death toll caused by AIDS in five “representative nations,” Pandemic also introduces those who fight AIDS, who live with dignity in spite of it. Particularly powerful is the story of the Ugandan children James (seven years old) and Jessica (four). Having lost both their parents to the disease, they live in poverty on their own, but find strength and solace in each other.
While Pandemic gives faces to the horrors endured by 40 million AIDS sufferers, it is also flawed. Its assertion that the “cure” depends on each of us taking “a step forward” to achieve a “world without AIDS” doesn’t provide a strategy beyond personal resistance. Education through documentaries and academic programs will not, as the film concludes in its narration and director’s commentary, end the AIDS pandemic. Such education must be followed by policy changes, redistribution of wealth, a fight against poverty, and sustained health care initiatives.
Pandemic suggests repeatedly that AIDS is brought on by individual actions: Lena and Sergei because of their heroin use; Lek because of her prostitution; Nagaraj & Bhanu because of his adultery. The tendency of the film to offer causal arguments whereupon drugs or promiscuity lead to AIDS, without context (history, world health policy, discussion of capitalism) undermines its educational potential. The film doesn’t make clear connections between the local instances of the disease and larger structural forces, such as globalization, imperialism, or poverty.
Rather than focusing on the effects of colonization or the impact of hospitals closing or the institution of user fees, Pandemic includes interviews in which the AIDS crisis in Uganda is attributed to adultery and males’ “insatiable and greedy” appetites for sex, reinforcing longstanding stereotypes of “African” promiscuity. One HIV-positive man states, “We’ve been told if we distance ourselves and abstain, then we’ll be fine. This doesn’t apply to men only; women too are greedy.” As the film does not offer alternative interpretations, it appears to blame sexual activity for AIDS.
The documentary also portrays Thai prostitutes and appalling health clinics without sufficient consideration of Western tourists or foreign policy as collaborators in the spread of AIDS. Given its presumed orientation toward U.S. audiences, the film’s failure to address the legacies of colonization is not surprising. Pandemic ignores the contemporary impact of the IMF and the World Bank, making no references to the way structural adjustment programs systematically destroy health care in Third World nations while simultaneously limiting the availability of drug treatment. The advancements of anti-AIDS drugs are meaningless, not because of stigmas or fears, but because of the cost of drugs and the lack of funding.
Pandemic‘s reliance on emotion over substance and its refusal to interrogate capitalism and Western hegemony suggests that AIDS is an individual problem to be overcome through individual actions. Despite claims by the production company Docudrama, that “Everything else is pure fiction,”Pandemic: Facing AIDS provides only a portion of truth.