PositiveLite.com Interviews VOICES director Daniel Larson Sidhu
Bob Leahy interviews the director of the documentary VOICES, the story of how in 2006 AIDS activists in Toronto made a future possible for HIV-positive South Africans.
Bob Leahy: Thanks for talking to PositiveLite.com. We’ll talk about the film’s connection with Toronto in a minute. Tell me about yourself, first, Daniel.
Daniel: Thank you too. Sure, for people who don’t know me I’d say I’m a person who doesn’t give up. I think two things have shaped my life; and those two things are acting and running. Both pursuits are about discipline and determination – and both have made me the person I am today.
Bob: You’ve made a film called VOICES which is clearly a labour of love and a work that reflects the passion in your soul. Where does that passion come from – and can you describe it for us, in a nutshell?
Daniel: In a nutshell, I’m not sure I can do that, Bob, but I’ll try! I’m a British born Asian, with North Indian heritage, and I think that background makes my passion inevitable? Punjabis are naturally passionate and expressive people and when you’re brought up in that kind of an environment it’s going to rub-off on you. There’s no escape.
Also I’m a Sikh; and Sikhism sprang out of a need to defend the community and to fight for justice, and the rights of the people. But Sikhism is also about being compassionate and caring. Defending a community isn’t just about physical fighting.
Bob: You first visited South Africa over ten years ago. Why did you go and what were your impressions – what did you bring back with you?
Daniel: Correct, yes. I flew to Cape Town over ten years ago, to work for a few months for SABC, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, as part of my media studies. I chose South Africa because the recent history fascinated me; I wanted to see it for myself; to look at it with fresh eyes – because I didn’t believe the clichés.
What I experienced on successive trips was a nation in transition. People on the move, vast spaces and over-powering scenery, often juxtaposed with people squashed into a small area and living in absolute poverty. Then you have the wealth and privilege, and the shopping, and the eating. It’s busy. It’s culturally mixed. The faces of the people tell the story of the nation. I was hooked. It was like a drug.
What I brought back, apart from a stack of photographs that would’ve broken the back of a camel, were incredible and vivid memories; and a burning desire to record what I’d seen and heard in a film. That was the genesis.
Bob: Now the Toronto International AIDS Conference in 2006 was important for you, wasn’t it? I was there too, and so was our founder Bran Finch who organized a demonstration at the opening ceremonies. I’m not sure you and I met though. Tell me in what capacity were you there? What was your objective?
Wow – amazing! I wasn’t actually at the conference. What happened was that I heard about the media storm from the Producer of Voices; Simon Constable.
The news shocked me; and I instantly realized – and this was before I knew about or saw any demo. footage – that in this transformational moment there was a potential film. There was a great story. And so in the Autumn of 2006 we began to look into what happened in more depth, and to contact people.
Bob: Now that international conference plays an important in your story. Do you want to talk about what happened there?
Daniel: Yes, it does – it’s the core of the film. In simple terms what happened was that a spontaneous AIDS activist demo. The South African government sparked savage criticism during his closing ceremony speech, from Stephen Lewis, (pictured below) the out-going UN envoy for AIDS in Africa. That very eloquent speech, and the resulting international media attention, was the turning point in the decade long fight against HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa.
Bob: When he spoke, Stephen Lewis, called the South African Government’s actions “wrong, immoral and indefensible”. He was talking about AIDS denialism - promoting ridiculous treatments (or were they cures?) they had put forward, like lemon juice. Anyway, do you want to talk about that?
Yes. As I said, and as I told him (in Vienna in 2010), Stephen Lewis’s forceful speech was perfectly timed. He spoke for everybody; and he articulated their concerns and anger beautifully. In many ways he could let rip, as he was about to stand down from his post.
AIDS activists and the scientific community were understandably furious about Thabo Mbeki’s total failure to tackle HIV effectively. And it’s as hard now, looking back, as it was at the time, to believe that President Mbeki’s government, and his Minister of Health, ignored proven methods of tackling AIDS; and embraced denialist theories and phantom treatments. Beetroot, garlic and lemon juice, for example. It’s just unbelievable – but it happened!
Without that stand, the demo and the other actions and interventions of activists in Canada, and, of course, that wonderful speech, who knows where we would be now.
Bob: I think I was at that demo and I took photos; I should dig them out for you. Anyway, what happened next? When did you decide you wanted to make a film?
Daniel: As I already said, I decided to focus the film I’d always wanted to make on AIDS after the Toronto conference or summit. But films don’t just happen, and you absolutely need evidence, substance and good material.
The end of 2006 and almost all of 2007 was spent researching. We did conduct early interviews with people who were available; such as Sir Bob Geldof and Dr. Robert C. Gallo, and we planned the budget and gathered resources.
Bob: Had you had any experience in filmmaking?
Yes. I studied media at University and created short films there as part of my course work. As I mentioned I worked at SABC and also the BBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation, in the UK. And I personally filmed footage, and some interviews about South Africa, in 2004. So I was fairly experienced in filming and editing.
Bob: What did your plan look like?
Daniel: Our plan was to fill in the back story and the gaps. By 2007 we already had compelling archive; but what was happening before 2006? And what happened afterwards? We needed to investigate in order for the whole story to be told – even in a sketchy way.
Did that immediately present itself as the way forward? No. For about twelve months we struggled with the angle. Everybody we spoke to had an opinion, but nobody had a solution. It was only at the end of 2009 that it really crystalized. Then in the following year we set off for the second and final filming trip.
Bob: You managed to got footage of the Toronto conference and that demo we talked about and you used it in Voices, I hear. I’m dying to see it. What’s the footage like?
Daniel: When you see the archive material we were given permission to use, and how we treated it, you won’t believe it. It’s just like you’re there on the stand. You’re there! It’s in front of you. You’re in the moment when the Minister of Health is cornered on the stand and asked to justify her policies by a tenacious female journalist. And we did that to convey the power of the moment to the viewer; and to show ‘people power’ in action. It’s raw. It’s real. It’s history. And there are parallels with the situation in the Arab world and the whole 99% movement.
Bob: So you commenced filming in 2008? Tell me about that.
Daniel: Yes, 2008. After spending 2007 researching and planning we gathered some funds. We formed a tight five person team – that was three cameras and two Producers; myself and Simon - and we set-off for an intensive and packed filming trip.
Bob: Where did you go and who did you interview for the film?
Daniel: 12 days in a paragraph? I’ll do my best to summarise it, Bob. But seriously, with the small budget in mind, we based ourselves at a fantastic hostel, in Alexandria, in Johannesburg and used it as a base to travel the country. Support from early partners was invaluable.
First we drove South to Free State with Save The Children. Then we headed East to Pietermaritzburg to look at the work of Fritse Muller. Then we headed for Maseru, the capital of the country of Lesotho; a nation inside of South Africa, to look at the amazing work of ALAFA there – 2,500 kilometres in total! In between there were many interviews. Every day was a working day.
And at this point I have to say that without the early partners it would’ve been a very different trip indeed. As would the 2010 trip.
Bob: Where you happy with the results, the footage from Africa? And how do you go about editing something like that?
That footage from 2008 is great. The purpose of the trip was to really look in-depth at everything - and we did. We looked at rape, prevention, baby graves, how men are affected, we looked at the good and the bad. There was actually too much footage to use and a lot fell by the way-side – such as the to-camera diaries I recorded every day. But who knows, maybe they’ll make-it onto the DVD?
Compared with 2010 the 2008 trip was a dream; but what we did discover was that we would have to return, because the South African government changed and so did the health policy.
Bob: That’s what I wanted to ask you. I mean that was a time of transition then with a new, more progressive government coming in. Did that complicate things for you or altered the relevancy of your message in any way?
Daniel: Well, firstly it was – in my opinion – very much a consequence of Toronto. Do I think Mbeki was forced from office because of what happened in Canada in 2006? No. But it was another nail in his coffin. Some would call him a murderer. Not me, I would stop short of that; an interviewee doesn’t. But there’s blood on his hands, definitely. I’ve seen the consequences of his inaction and denial. People died needlessly.
We all like a happy ending – don’t we, Bob. We all like the happy ending and the credits rolling and it all working out. Is there a happy ending if you’re HIV? Maybe you’re happier and alive when you get the treatment you’re entitled to from your government?
There’s a question mark and we don’t know if South Africa can sustain so many on treatment. Will those HIV positive citizens become drug resistant? We don’t know. We have to be hopeful; and we have to give them the opportunity to live and to contribute to society, and not create more orphans. I think the little AIDS orphan girl we follow in Voices, from being very tiny almost to puberty, is symbolic of hope.
Bob: You’ve said the film is about not just voices by answers. What are the answers?
Daniel: Yes. It’s titled “Voices – Nobody Will Silence Them!” because eventually the cries were heard; the cries were answered. And the film is also called Voices because of some of the incredible people who have contributed their time, their memories and experiences. Sometimes you just hear audio and there’s a blank screen. It’s a just a statement – just a voice. Something powerful. A memory. People like Gail Johnson; the Mother of the late great Nkosi Johnson, the inspirational Zachie Achmat, and many less famous but equally important persons.
What are the answers? I think Voices shows that we’re all in a position, even in a small way – such as when people buy WAITROSE produce; which then directly helps fund an HIV clinic, in rural Limpopo – to fight HIV/AIDS. I think Voices doesn’t only show things going wrong it often shows what works, and good models. For example: peer to peer education and support, employer responsibility, youth engagement and ‘edutainment’; and real sustainable government intervention.
Bob: You’ve called working on this movie – and we’re talking almost six years - “an obsession, a blessing and a curse”. Do you want to explain that?
Daniel: I said that? Sure. An obsession because I had to tell the story, people had to know; a blessing because my life has been enriched by the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been; and a curse, because I put so much into the film. In 2009 I was in a life-threatening accident and totally broke because of Voices and nobody would help. But I never stopped believing. I never gave-up – just like the Toronto activists!
Bob: What stage is the film at now?
Daniel: Voices is now completed and in a seventy minute screening version and ready to sell and to be broadcast. We are lining-up what we hope will be high profile screenings; and will continue those right up to World AIDS Day – hopefully one or two a month.
Bob: What does it feel like now you are almost there?
Daniel: A relief! Certainly the work isn’t over. But we’re confident, and above all, if we can screen or broadcast in South Africa, and Canada, we’ll be very pleased indeed. I have to tell you that many South Africans do not know to-this-day what happened in Toronto in 2006. Canadians may also need reminding?
Canada is very close to my heart – as I know it well, and have been there and have family there. Obviously, without Canada and the Toronto conference six years ago, and people like Dr. Mark Wainberg, sub-Saharan Africans might still be not be getting the ARV treatment they so badly need to stay alive; and could still be dying from AIDS because of denialism and inaction
Bob: When do you think people will be able to get a look at it?
Daniel: Bob I would love to give more details but we’re currently in discussions. If people can follow us on twitter: http://www.twitter.com/voiceshivaids and check our tweets then they will see information as the weeks and months pass. But international broadcast is absolutely our aim. The world must know the story and the mistakes must never be repeated.
Bob: Daniel, I want to thank you again for talking with us. You’ve given us the trailer to look, let’s look at it now.
Daniel Larson Sidhu is an actor turned film-maker based in the United Kingdom. He established Blue Rain Productions in 2008 with the aim of creating films that would assist people to better understand others and the world. Completed in 2011, VOICES is Daniel and BRP's debut feature documentary.
Find out more about VOICES on their website here.
Follow VOICES on twitter @VOICESHIVAIDS