“Why, if condoms are available, is AIDS still spreading in Africa?” asks Elkana Ong’esa, an elderly Kenyan man in the new documentary, Protection: Men and condoms in the time of HIV and AIDS.
“Because AIDS has not been sufficiently explained to people, and that if you use condoms you can prevent it,” replies a young man participating in a baraza (community meeting) called to discuss the devastating impact HIV is having on their village.
Instead of experts and NGO workers providing facts and advice, Protection follows “ordinary” men from three African countries – South Africa, Kenya and Sierra Leone - as they deal with the realities of HIV.
The South African chapter introduces us to George Ngwenya, an elderly boxing trainer from Soweto, and the young flyweight champion, Moruti "Babyface" Mthalane. Ngwenya refuses to talk to either his children or the young boxers he trains about HIV and the need for them to use condoms. Mthalane, on the other hand, is determined to avoid contracting a virus that could end his boxing career and uses condoms with his girlfriend.
The second section of the film moves to the village of Tabaka in rural Kenya, where the local industry of soapstone carving has been hit hard by the loss of skills resulting from the AIDS epidemic. Ong’esa, who has lost a daughter to the virus, hosts a baraza where community members talk about their experiences.
The final part of the film is set in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Amara Conteh, an upcoming footballer, drives through the poorer section of the city, pointing out the homes of his five girlfriends. He boasts to his friends that he has never used a condom, but later appears to be persuaded by his father's advice to protect himself from HIV and make a success of his life.
Contrasting with Conteh's story is that of Teeleema Smart, a teenage boy whose parents are so determined to protect him from the risks of sexual experimentation and keep him focused on his education that they have forbidden him from having a girlfriend. Smart secretly loves a girl but has never kissed her and respects his parents' warnings that "HIV is very serious".
A tool for debate
Protection was envisioned by executive producer Jill Lewis, a gender activist who has run HIV awareness workshops for men all over Africa, as a way to stimulate debate about the challenges and complexities African men face on condom use. She teamed up with South African NGO, Sonke Gender Justice, which works with African men to prevent sexual violence and HIV, and filmmakers Francois Verster and Neil Brandt. The Norwegian government provided financial backing.
“It was a beautiful challenge for us to have a mandate and not deliver it by hitting people over the heads,” said Brandt, the producer, at the launch of the film in Pretoria on 3 December.
That mandate included a list of what Lewis called “non-negotiables". The 110-minute film had to include urban and rural settings, issues relating to religious faith, and men of different ages and from different backgrounds speaking to other men about condoms and HIV in a supportive way.
Photo: Protection Film
|Amara Conteh speaks to one of his girlfriends|
“The idea was to... get away from stereotyped images of African men, also the idea of men being bad and having to be whipped into shape and told to do the right thing,” Verster, the director, told IRIN/PlusNews.
“We also felt it was very important to make a film that audience members can relate to; we specifically tried to find people who’d have the same doubts and misconceptions even, that a lot of the viewers would have, but with the idea that there’d be some kind of challenge or corrective in the film.”
A scene in which Conteh and his friends laugh about their preference for "flesh-to-flesh" sex and dismiss the existence of HIV, for example, is followed by scenes of Conteh going to the mosque, expressing his grief following his mother's death and admitting that most of his girlfriends no longer visit him.
"The reality about condoms is more complex than that people just don’t like using them," commented Dean Peacock, executive director of Sonke Gender Justice. "My hope is that the nuance [in the film] doesn’t get in the way of it being useful."
The launch in Pretoria was attended mainly by members of local civil society organizations who could use the film as a tool to aid discussions about condoms.
Gift Matenche, who works for an HIV/AIDS organization in a nearby township, said he thought the film might help him broach a sensitive topic. "It's difficult to talk to people about condoms, especially older people," he told IRIN/PlusNews.
Eight thousand copies of the film are being distributed through the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Men Engage Alliance, a network of organizations that work with men on issues relating to gender and HIV in 40 different countries.