The statistics are upsetting and well known. Despite an encouraging recent drop in transmission rates, black women still represent two-thirds of all new HIV infections among women. In fact, they are 20 times more likely to seroconvert than white women—a greater level of disparity than ever before. The cavalcade of AIDS anniversaries over the last few years has spawned a corresponding interest in producing museum exhibits, documentaries, and feature films about the early years of the crisis. But with a few notable exceptions (Frontline’s “Endgame: AIDS In Black America;” Precious; Tyler Perry’s despicable Temptation), there has been no similar rush to tell the stories of the (black, female) face of the modern epidemic.
Hannelore Williams, filmmaker, actor, and creator of the new docu-series “Dirty 30,” is hoping to change that.
“My target demographic are the people who watch ‘Basketball Wives’,” Williams says with a laugh, which I’ve learned means she’s about to say something darkly honest. “Or let’s just be real—people who don’t want to talk about HIV.”
Like the hundred or so people around the globe that Williams has interviewed, I find it easy to talk to her about HIV/AIDS. She’s relaxed, cool, confident, and quick to laugh about difficult things. Indeed, she ends every interview for “Dirty 30” by asking her subjects to “tell their favorite AIDS joke.”
As with many working on the epidemic, Williams has a personal connection to the crisis: her sister’s father passed away due to AIDS-related complications. But it wasn’t until years later, when she was preparing to volunteer at Nkosi’s Haven, a center for destitute HIV-positive mothers, children and AIDS orphans in Johannesburg, South Africa, that that connection hit home. “How am I flying across the globe,” she found herself wondering, “and I didn’t even go across the country to be with my sister” when her father died?
Williams was in South Africa to do arts education with children, but the women of Nkosi’s Haven were so similar to women she had known her whole life that she was drawn to work with them as well. She taught them to use her camera and let them turn the lens on their own lives. In so doing, she became hyperaware of all the ways in which black women—in the U.S. and around the world—were lacking opportunities to talk about AIDS. Quickly it became an obsession.
“It was a hurricane coming at me from the far west,” Williams says with a distant look in her eyes, discussing that feeling. “Once you start to look at this pandemic there's no way you would ever turn your back.”
There was just one problem: At the time, Williams didn’t know much about HIV. She realized, however, that the journey to knowledge was the story she had to tell. So she put her life on hold, borrowed two cameras, and spent six months traveling the world gathering footage. “I'm learning about this from the standpoint that most Americans are,” she says, “which is not knowing, or sort of knowing, but easily sweeping it under the rug.”
Far from being limiting, this acknowledgement allowed her to make a series that speaks directly to the epidemic as it is today. In “Dirty 30,” there are no ponderous attempts to chart the entire history of the crisis in order to set the scene. Instead, AIDS is treated simply as a fact of life—something we all know about, even if we don’t talk about it. And from New York to Baton Rouge, from Cape Town to Paris, Williams’ goal is to get people talking.
“It's not Hanne telling you jack shit about anything!” she laughs, when I ask if she’s worried about the responsibility that comes with approaching such a fraught issue from a place of relative ignorance. “I’m creating a platform for somebody else to talk.”
And that platform is, in a word, slick. Stylistically, “Dirty 30” feels more akin to a music video than a typical AIDS documentary, with beautiful shots of foreign cities, quick-cut motion graphics, and “featured artists” whose R&B tracks provide the backbeat to the show. Currently, Williams is meeting with commercial brands that might want to underwrite the series, and networks and other media platforms that might give it a home. She’s planned 16 episodes, with topics like “Monogamy & Sexual Healing,” and “Drugs & Escapism.”
“There are sexy issues tied to this pandemic,” she says unapologetically. By exploring them, she hopes to attract a young audience that doesn’t often tune in for stodgy healthcare PSAs—and therefore might need them most.
Williams acknowledges that aspects of the series might seem triggering at first, like using the word dirty in the title. But she says her choices have been informed by her subjects, and that she’s backed away from topics—like AIDS conspiracy theories—that her interviews led her to believe wouldn’t further a real conversation about the crisis. Still, she’s not afraid to talk about difficult issues. “If you try to talk about stigma and don’t actually put it out there,” she says, “what are we talking about? Bullshit. Lies.”
Although the show looks at the crisis through the lens of black womanhood, Williams is adamant about including diverse subjects and experiences in her frame. To her, it’s simple: “You can't talk about black women in the context of AIDS without talking about everybody else at the same time.” AIDS, which was once considered a niche disease, is now as much a part of the fabric of our lives as cotton.
At the moment, “Dirty 30” is in production, but even now Williams can’t stop. While I’m interviewing her, she’s setting up an additional shoot in Toronto. She doesn’t know yet where the show will end up, but she’s certain it will find a home, and she’s already begun planning more episodes.
“Not even one season of a show,” she says, shaking her head with a mixture of sadness and reflection, “could address all of the issues tied to this pandemic.”