Priya Giri Desai documents matchmaking efforts for HIV-positives in India.
A matchmaker as well as a microbiologist, 71-year-old Dr. Suniti Solomon is a dream subject for a filmmaker. “She’s incredibly revolutionary for her generation in India,” explains San Francisco director Priya Giri Desai, citing the Chennai doctor’s tireless efforts to erase the societal shame of HIV. “But on camera she appears as a typical Indian grandmother, with a sari and a bindi.”
Desai and Ann S. Kim were working on a children’s TV show at WGBH-Boston four years ago when they read a story about Dr. Solomon on the BBC South Asia website. They obtained her email address from a mutual friend, fortuitously, and sent off a quick note: “If we were ever to come to India with a little camera, would you participate?”
The filmmakers were frankly unconcerned that major media outlets such as 60 Minutes and the Wall Street Journal had also done stories on Dr. Solomon.
“Our entry point was always going to be different,” explains Desai, an East Bay native whose parents immigrated from India. “Ann and I are more interested in nuanced stories in the gray area of the culture, where the science and the medicine intersect with the tradition, and the culture, and the sense of duty people feel to their traditions. It’s less of a story of HIV in the developing world and more of a story of how people deal with a new reality while still holding on to their traditional values.”
The stigma associated with having HIV in India compels people to keep their status secret. But in a country where arranged marriages are the norm, a person can only find fault with so many prospective mates without angering his parents and/or provoking gossip and rumors. “The pressure to marry, and the pressure to have a family, is so intense that some marry a negative anyways,” Desai says.
Dr. Solomon has begun matching partners from her pool of patients, but it’s a long, deliberate process. She did allow Desai and Kim to dip into that pool for additional characters for Match+.
“We have found people who will speak to us openly; we have found people who will never let us film their face but they let us record their voice,” Desai reports. “They are eager to get the word out. They realize what’s at stake and they don’t want anyone else to feel the way they feel, living so secretively. And they feel like they fit into society once they are married.”
To explain the context to Western audiences, the filmmakers collected a chorus of man (and woman)-on-the-street interviews with Indians from all strata of society. They lay out their country’s cultural rules, often quite humorously, Desai says. That said, the filmmakers aren’t interested in distilling a complicated situation, and a variety of individual experiences, into a simplistic film.
“I’d rather have a few hanging questions out there and be true to the hypocrisies of that world rather than have it all sewn up and perfectly digestible,” Desai declares. “That’s our privilege as documentarians. The truth is weird, and we can leave it weird, because that’s what we’re documenting.”
The filmmakers are just starting in on the assembly for the final film, building on the short assemblies they had previously done to accompany grant applications. (Pretty successfully, too, with awards from the Center for Asian American Media, Women Make Movies and the Sundance Documentary Film Program; they were also SFFS FilmHouse residents.) While each of these organizations has its own niche and constituency, going forward Desai and Kim will tout Match+’s universal theme.
“It’s about people’s rights to have companionship in the face of whatever they’re facing,” she says. “We all want what they want, which should make the film appealing to a wider audience.”
Notes from the Underground
Micha Peled’s Bitter Seeds had its world premiere this past weekend at Telluride, which keeps its program confidential until opening day....Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway’s Better This World airs nationally this week on P.O.V.... East Bay director Peter Esmonde appears at the PFA September 8 with his 2009 doc Trimpin: The Sound of Invention....A PBS broadcast of Andy Abraham Wilson and Tom Shepard’s The Grove is in the works for World AIDS Day, December 1.
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