On the one hand, Miss HIV provides detailed insight into the personal side of HIV/AIDS in Botswana and Uganda. Interview subjects describe their journeys through testing, illness, treatment, and publicly revealing their status. The filmmakers share footage of funerals, burials, church ceremonies, and the 2006 International AIDS Conference. We have found it valuable to gain insight into the personal dimensions of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Botswana.
On the other hand, the film is also a fascinating study in how to make a propaganda vehicle. It begins as a “balanced” presentation of competing western ideological views of how to best fight HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. On one side, we have local policy created in Uganda and based on abstinence, faithfulness, and use of condoms. On the other, we have a liberal, western policy based on the San Francisco gay experience, emphasizing human rights, and implemented in Botswana. The stigma of being HIV+ is presented as a key obstacle to overcome. The film is pretty clear so far.
The middle of the film is confusing (deliberately?), presenting several contradictory ideas in quick succession. Western policy does not support abstinence education, but then here is a shot of George W. Bush signing for millions for abstinence. Bill Gates is booed for supporting abstinence and then cheered for acknowledging the limits of abstinence policy. One speaker bemoans the lack of support for women’s rights organizations, then another speaker chides Mr. Gates for (somehow) supporting prostitution. The Miss HIV Stigma-free Pageant is alternately celebrated for battling stigma and criticized for sexualizing a public heath crisis.
Near the end, the film suddenly crystallizes its argument, “saving” viewers from their confused state. Abstinence education has worked in Uganda, and sexually permissive policies have failed in Botswana. A church minister and two individuals who cherish abstinence are the key figures in this part of the film.
This tidy conclusion overlooks some key facts:
- The ABC approach was popularized in Botswana in the 1990’s. (source)
- Uganda’s success resulted from a number of factors, not just abstinence. (source)
- Uganda has a mixture of substrains HIV-1A, 1C, and 1D (source). In Botswana, HIV-1C is responsible for nearly all infections (source). It is more difficult to prevent new infections with HIV-1C.
For each powerful voice that Miss HIV shares in the fight against HIV/AIDS, it leaves out another.
- Human rights organizations have expressed concern about President Museveni’s restrictions on homosexuals and democratic processes. (source)
- Social engineering is extremely difficult and certainly not formulaic.
- The film does not include interviews with ministry of health officials in either country.
Miss HIV shares rare, first-hand footage of HIV and AIDS in Uganda and Botswana but ultimately presents a one-sided conclusion.