Survivor: The Real Thing

Facing AIDS: In Russia, Nikita's parents are both HIV-positive.Photo: HBO

In the handy educational booklet that accompanies the press kit for Pandemic: Facing AIDS, we get a globe-trot through the ravages of the disease in selected countries. Thus in the United States, for example, there were 890,000 adults with HIV in 2001; in France, 100,000; in Great Britain, 34,000; and in the Philippines, 9,400. On the other hand, in Zimbabwe, there were 2 million positives; in India, 3.8 million; and in South Africa, 4.7 million. The percentage of adults infected in Spain is .05; in Botswana, 38.8 percent. Everywhere the numbers of afflicted women are rising, and so are the children orphaned by AIDS. This is what globalization looks like.

Pandemic, a series of five short films from documentarian Rory Kennedy (American Hollow), narrated by Elton John, insists we go beyond the dreadful statistics into the wards and wounds of the living, breathing victims. First up is Thailand, where a young refugee from the sex industry finds herself in a Buddhist monastery hoping her family will take her back before she dies, and then Uganda, where 2 million children have already lost their parents to AIDS.

But Uganda is one of a very few African countries to have emerged from a state of official denial about the disease to mount a campaign of education and prevention that’s halved the HIV-infection rate from 14 percent to 5. So along with listening to children sing, we also spend time in a government-sponsored clinic while health workers test blood, speak frankly, and distribute condoms. Lek, the young Thai woman we met in the first half-hour, could have used such counsel. But Buddhism seems to be no more comforting or communitarian than any other organized religion in the plague years.

In Russia, as we see on June 22, IV drug use is what left Lena and Sergei HIV-positive, with a 3-year-old son to raise in a country that has only begun to realize that the virus has escaped from its subculture into the general population—700,000 adults with HIV, 180,000 of them women. With the time that remains to them, Lena and Sergei have devoted themselves to some old-fashioned consciousness-raising.

In Brazil, on June 29, we watch Alex, a 27-year-old gay man, come back from the wasteland to something like productive health thanks to state-mandated free AIDS drug therapy. That’s right: free. (No wonder Brazil led the fight against price-gouging pharmaceutical companies, promising to manufacture its own generic brands, patents be damned, unless the profit margin dwindled from shamelessly exorbitant to merely greedy.) As in Uganda, aggressive programs of education, treatment, and prevention have proved that they work in Brazil, slowing the spread of the disease.

In southern India, which we get to last, on July 6, Nagaraj has AIDS, and his wife, Bhanu, is HIV-positive, and they decide to stick together, with their baby, in spite of the objections of her family and the hostility of the neighboring villagers. They are more hopeful than you are likely to be. Nagaraj died after Rory Kennedy’s cameras had moved on. Over 100,000 HIV-positive mothers give birth every year in India, and almost a third of their children are infected. The figures for 2001 are 1.7 million Indian children with HIV.

Besides the HBO series, Pandemic is an educational campaign that includes a book of 200 photos with essays by the likes of Nadine Gordimer and Kofi Annan; a CD featuring such performers as Ravi Shankar, Lou Reed, Gabriela Anders, Philip Glass, and the Uganda Orphans Choir; a traveling exhibition of artwork representing twenty years of AIDS in 50 different countries; and, of course, a Website, Once upon a time, we called this reality programming.

Bloodlines: Technology Hits Home (June 10; 9 to 10 p.m.; Channel 13) looks at the ethical, social, and legal questions raised by our ability to test and splice genes, mix animal cells with the human, and fertilize in vitro (or maybe clone). As much as lawyers, we will need angels.

All About My Father (June 11; 7 to 8 p.m.; Cinemax) is Even Benestad’s story of his own parent, known on the one hand as Dr. Esben Benestad, a general practitioner, an author, a regular contributor to a men’s magazine, and a politician in his small Norwegian town. On the other hand, he is also known as Esther Pirelli, a transvestite, a therapist, and an amateur actress.

The Even Stevens Movie (June 13; 8 to 10 p.m.; Disney Channel) inflates the inexplicably popular TV series into a movie in which the whole obnoxious family thinks it’s going on a prepaid holiday to a Pacific island but is plunged instead into a sadistic, Survivor-like reality fiasco.

Love in the City (June 13; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) features “Reel New York” short films from Michael Sporn, Claudia Silver, Paul Karlin, Sean Lees, Cheryl Furjanic, and Masayo Nishimura. My favorite is Furjanic’s Bar Talk, if only because it’s “in Lesbian with English subtitles.”

Varekai (June 14; 8 to 10 p.m.; Bravo) is the current Cirque du Soleil production, in which a young man parachutes into a magical forest on top of a volcano. This stuff seems more impressive and less pretentious when you’re sitting there in person, under a tent. On the other hand, the news from Canada is that le Cirque has mounted an R-rated show for Las Vegas, called Zumanity, with love seats and female impersonators.

Outlaw Comic: The Censoring of Bill Hicks (June 15; 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Trio) features snippets from the TV and road-show acts of the “rock and roll comic” and “Antichrist” who died at age 32 of pancreatic cancer, doubtless complicated by everything from substance abuse to network broadcast standards. As Janeane Garofalo makes clear, we could use him today. He didn’t care much for the first war on Iraq. But his real offense seems to have been his take on religious hypocrisy.

The King and Queen of Moonlight Bay (June 15; 9 to 11 p.m.; Hallmark) sends college-bound Kristen Bell off for an edgy summer visit to Tim Matheson, the father who deserted her. In a desert shack near a surprising amount of water, she will meet Ed Asner and Sean Young while incidentally learning to swim and losing her virginity.

Pandemic: Facing AIDS
Sunday, June 15, 7 to 8 p.m.; Sunday, June 22, noon to 12:30 p.m.; Sunday, June 29, noon to12:30 p.m.; Sunday July 6, noon to 12:30 p.m.; HBO.

Survivor: The Real Thing