A Hospital in Zambia, 'On the Frontlines of AIDS'

In his new documentary On the Frontlines of AIDS, filmmaker Sorious Samura chronicles his experience working as an orderly at a hospital in Zambia. Television critic Andrew Wallenstein reviews the film, which airs Monday on the Discovery Times Channel.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

This coming Thursday, December 1st, is World AIDS Day, an occasion to refocus on the disease that truly is present everywhere in the world. Here's an example: In the African country of Zambia, nearly one million people are infected with HIV or AIDS. A TV documentary airing today on the Discovery/Times channel examines how Zambians are coping. Here's TV critic Andrew Wallenstein.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN:

Once again, Sorious Samura takes a gutsy approach to his documentaries. The African filmmaker more than observes the crises ravaging his mother country; he participates. In his last film "Surviving Hunger," he starves himself alongside malnourished Ethiopians for a month. This time around, Samura places himself in the teeth of another epidemic. In "On the Frontline of AIDS," he gets himself a job as an orderly at Zambia's Lewanika Hospital. There, Samura gets his first taste of the severity of the problem when he leafs through the pages of the hospital's mortuary registry.

(Soundbite of "On the Frontlines of AIDS")

Mr. SORIOUS SAMURA (Filmmaker): Let me take a quick look, you know, starting at March, you know. You can see that--I mean, it's 24 names per page, and March is one page, two, three, four and about five, you know. Roughly, it looks like about three, four people on average dies every day.

WALLENSTEIN: Samura may not be starving himself in this documentary, but his hospital job still takes quite a toll. He exposes himself to incredible suffering on a daily basis. His job also lets him see how underequipped hospitals in the region are, with some patients forced to sleep on the floor and retroviral drugs always in short supply.

Samura also ventures outside the hospital walls to find out why AIDS is so pervasive in Zambia. These trips offer one sobering realization after another. During one excursion to a nightclub, he interviews young party-goers who dismiss condoms for no particular reason. Another day's journey takes him to a family where a mother with AIDS confesses she hasn't educated her kids about sex because she felt shy. But the most unforgettable scene is in a church, where a pastor and his translator preach abstinence. As for using protection, they offer a message that shocks Samura.

(Soundbite of "On the Frontlines of AIDS")

Unidentified Man #1: HIV is one of the uncurable diseases.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: You're not welcome to talk about it in the church today. Me, I don't support the issue of condoms because that has been made by man. Man shall not protect this...

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: ...and so it is only God.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: So the only protection measure, according to the Bible, is to stick to Jesus.

WALLENSTEIN: The uncomfortable truth about AIDS in Africa is that it's a difficult issue to wrap one's mind around, but what Samura does here is just the right approach. Yes, he humanizes the victims by becoming part of their world. But more important, he demystifies the crisis by asking tough questions about how it came to be.

CHADWICK: Andrew Wallenstein is a television critic and an editor with the Hollywood Reporter.

I'm Alex Chadwick. This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Stay with us.

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