“You just have to watch this film.”
Dr. Marife Yap, the associate dean of Ateneo’s medical school, was like a proud mother as she insisted I watch a film produced by the sophomore students and which had won in a competition sponsored by the National Institute of Health. It was short, a bit over nine minutes, but packed with information, revolving around the stories of four people living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
In between narratives, the film flashes certain key words to capture the essence of living with HIV. Early in the film we learn the word “pusit” which, Pinoy-style, has mutated from the English “positive” (as in HIV-positive) into “posit” and then into “pusit” (or squid), which HIV-positive people use, often with a light-hearted and affectionate tone, to refer to themselves and others with HIV.
We hear of dashed dreams as well as new hopes. There’s a young man who worked in Korea and believes he was infected by his live-in partner. There’s a sex worker who, after becoming HIV-positive, finds herself accepted and loved by parents who used to beat her up. There’s a balikbayan, animated in her stories about how she had to come back home and now dealing with stigma and discrimination. Then there’s a middle-aged man, background unknown, quite philosophical and quietly cheerful about his condition.
All four are now volunteer AIDS educators, and I would think the film, with some editing, could go back to the educators to help them with their work. I recently wrote about exploring the potential of such films for health work, given that they can be produced fairly quickly and on low budgets, and which can be shown even from a laptop computer.
Indies on health
Health and illness have long been standard staples in local tear-jerkers to highlight tragedy and poverty. That genre has been carried over into indie or independent films. Recently I was asked to comment on a series of short indie films with health themes. One film is about a midwife attending to an impoverished man’s wife who has gone into labor, and asking for P5,000. The desperate husband goes out, holds up and kills a young student, who turns out to be the son of the midwife. The other film is about an ambulance driver who, in conversations with fellow drivers, challenges the belief that running over and killing a dog will save the life of the patient they’re transporting. Toward the end of the film, this driver gets into an accident: His ambulance hits a child, who turns out to be his own daughter.
The physicians are always impressed with the quality of the cinematography but are also concerned that the stories stretch the limits of credulity. Yet, as physicians, they say they can offer even more incredible, but true, stories all the time, the stories unfolding each day in clinics and hospitals, epitomizing so many of our failures in society, from poverty and social inequities, to the dismal levels of health and science literacy.
I, too, get these surreal stories all the time, some coming from my research into local health culture and others when people come to me with health emergencies and problems. I’ve written about the 18-year-old girl brought up to Manila from Samar by her parents. It was clear the girl had tuberculosis and I referred her to several doctors, all of whom confirmed TB. But it was a diagnosis that the parents refused to accept because they believed she was a victim of kulam or sorcery. The girl died a few weeks after coming to Manila, still untreated.
Another time in an urban poor community, a woman told me about how she had lost two siblings, one to “convulsions” and the other in the strangest freak accident. Her infant brother was sleeping when a cat jumped up to a nearby cabinet, dislodging a metal plate which came crashing down, with great impact, on the infant’s head. The infant was rushed to a hospital bleeding from the head injury, and died a few days later.
I was initially incredulous but realized, as I looked at her family’s cramped living quarters, that such accidents can, and do, happen. And when they do, it shouldn’t be surprising that they attribute it to sorcery, or punishment from God.
Many more of such stories are waiting to be told. One nephrologist friend tells me that while the practice of men selling their kidneys has stopped, we really should be going back and checking on those who did “mine” their bodies from years back, and how they live now.
More films need to focus as well on how women’s lives hang on the edge during labor, as their husbands or partners go out looking for the money to pay the midwife, doctor or hospital. But rather than creating a plot around murder and helplessness, filmmakers might want to pick up from a documentary produced for the Department of Health about a nurse and her exasperation in dealing with some would-be mothers coming to the obstetrics ward totally unprepared. She chides them, telling them that God made pregnancies nine months long to give parents time to prepare. It’s sound advice, and could be used as a catchy punch line for telenovelas and films to encourage prenatal care and preparing for the delivery itself.
I do worry that all these features degenerate into voyeurism, a form of poverty pornography. Film producers and TV networks owe it to the public to do something about the problems they document, at the very least helping them to get medical assistance, including the financial resources needed.
Or they can even help to draw government attention to practices that are downright dangerous. Some weeks back, GMA 7 featured a cult where the leader also doubles as a faith healer. The group was featured as well on Discovery Channel some years ago, and I’ve wondered why authorities don’t crack down on the leader’s practice of making his followers eat crushed fluorescent tubes. The dangers come from ingesting not only cracked glass but the extremely toxic mercury found in the light tubes.
Finally, I have to say raising health awareness shouldn’t just focus on the despair and suffering that comes with tragedies. There are stories, too, of people overcoming adversity, as in the case of the “pusit” in the Ateneo medical students’ film. I think, too, of a vendor in the Unimart area in Greenhills, both legs amputated around the area of the knees, still able to sell sampaguita by going from car to car. Unlike other vendors, he doesn’t whine or beg you to buy, and has an amazingly cheerful disposition, constantly kidding around. He deserves to be featured—a case of triumph over tragedy—and given a break.
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