Thing With No Name (2007, Sarah Friedland): USA, South Africa

Reviewed by Richard Feilden.  Viewed at the Santa Barbara Human Rights Festival

Thing With No Name is the killer that many fear so greatly that they avoid testing.  It is the killer that thrives on ignorance and on misinformation.  It is HIV/AIDS.  It is also the name of the first feature length documentary from director/writer Sarah Friedland, a film which, although flawed in parts, goes a long way towards putting a human face on a tragedy usually masked by numbers.

Danisile and Ntombeleni are rural South African women.  They are diagnosed with AIDS at a late stage, leaving the effectiveness of the anti-retroviral drugs that became freely, if not easily, available after protests in 2003 in question.  Questionable hope is better than no hope at all, and so the two women take the requisite training courses and begin to battle the virus as best they can, whilst struggling to hold their families together.  Water still has to be pumped up from the wells and carried home, family rifts have to be healed and daughters have to be prepared for the responsibilities ahead of them.  And all of this must be done with the debilitating effects of their illness and the cocktail of drugs that they have to take weighing them down.

Friedman has managed to produce a film which, whilst filled with tragedy, never succumbs to maudlin sentimentality.  From the women dancing and singing about the killer that stalks them in the opening sequence to the festival celebrating the passage of the village girls into womanhood, the film celebrates the strength and resiliency of its subjects.  They are not there to be pitied, but the thought of a woman with full blown AIDS walking for three miles to a hospital for a training course so that she can gain access to the drugs which offer her a chance of life should make us angry.

It is also obvious that the film makers managed to achieve a close relationship with those in the film.   Their interviewees open up on subjects ranging from their own mortality to the difficulties that they have in their relationships with their children.   They also have access to the patients at their worst.  We see vacant eyes staring out from faces aged far beyond their years, we hear delusional ramblings and accusations that their carers are trying to kill them.  The film makers even have access to that most private of moments, the outpouring of grief at a funeral.  This intimacy helps to express a tragedy in terms which we can understand, rather than the faceless, overwhelming numbers which are our usual door into the devastation that HIV has wrought upon Africa.
Yet the focus on the day to day lives of these people eventually becomes a weakness within the film.  Friedman concentrates on these two families and never leaves their villages, denying us any evidence of the hardships they and others face in getting treatment.  We get interviews and titles which tell us of overcrowding at hospitals, of patients waiting in line from dawn till dusk and of doctors swamped to the point where life saving tests are forgotten, but we never get to see it for ourselves.  Whether or not the film makers decided not to dilute the personal nature of the film with the suffering of others, or whether they were simply unable to obtain the footage they needed is unclear, but it hurts the film.

Overall though the film is well worth seeing.  Friedland has managed to create a personal film which avoids sentimentality and through its specificity illustrates a larger picture and as such is comes highly, if not unreservedly, recommended.

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