A Raw, Romantic Campaign Paints a New Narrative of HIV In Vietnam

We talked to the people behind the campaign's two honest and beautiful short films.

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23 January 2019, 8:00am

Image by Maika Elan

The message is simple but quite radical: It’s possible for people living with HIV to have a healthy and fulfilling sex life.

That’s the core of a campaign tackling HIV stigma in Vietnam—a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control, the Partnership for Health Advancement in Vietnam (HAIVN), and the creative agency The Lab Saigon.

Their collaboration brought us two one-minute films that are almost identical—one featuring a straight couple and the other a gay couple. The camera starts recording outside someone's apartment and the viewer quickly finds themselves inside a vibrant but cramped home where a couple is kissing, licking, and undressing each other in bed. Then one of them turns to look directly into the camera and says, “I’m positive. He will never be.”

HIV infection rates peaked in Vietnam in the 2000s, and although growth rates have stabilized since, the stigma still hasn’t really gone away. And, partly, this was sadly by design. HIV rates declined in Vietnam in a large part because of a very successful awareness campaign that instilled fear in people, explained Tuan Le, a co-director and founder of The Lab Saigon.

But while messaging like this do reduce the rate of new infections, they also cement a culture of stigmatizing people who are already HIV-positive.

We're pretty far from the bad days of HIV being a death sentence, and today, affordable antiretroviral medication can reduce someone's viral load to an undetectable level. At that point, HIV is non-transmissible through intercourse. These advancements in science and medicine have changed lives all over the world, but while the medication is covered by Vietnam's health care system, it also isn't widely available.

That's where these films come in. With their raw and romantic aesthetics (Maika Elan, whose award-winning photo series on Vietnam's gay and lesbian couple inspired the look of this campaign, is another collaborator), the films set a new, positive narrative in the country. VICE spoke with Tuan Le and Anh Phi Cako, the co-creative directors of the project to learn more:

VICE: What made you want to tackle HIV in this really intimate way, as in, literally interrogating a couple in the middle of sex?
Tuan Le: We wanted to not glamorize it or stigmatize it. We just want to borrow a moment of these people’s lives. They’re living their lives, just the way they always have, because of this treatment, and we wanted to come in and literally just ask them for two, three seconds to help us deliver the message. And then we backed out. And that’s kind of the whole approach, we’re not trying to interrupt their lives.

So the people in the films are actual people living with HIV?
Le: No. We found people with HIV who are couples but—and this speaks to the stigma—they didn’t want their families to know. So we had to have people recreate their lives.

Cako: In terms of these films, we wanted to make it as pure and as raw as possible by doing one-shot films. So we come in and we see their apartments, their neighbors. We shot in these old apartment buildings.

The films themselves are really short.
They're for three different venues, for social media, for events—so they have a lot of outreach events, medical events and things like that—and for TV, it’s on an unlimited run but we’re still waiting for government approval for censorship. You know the weird thing is like the sex is one thing that we think we can we can get approval on, but it’s the homosexuality that we’re gonna get more pushback on.

So what’s the stigma associated with HIV in Vietnam?
Le: The stigma is either you’re having sex with everybody, having sex for money, or you’re a heavy drug user.

Some people think their life is over once they find out they're HIV-positive. Is that one of the misconceptions that you wanted to address as well?
Cako: There are a bunch of surveys in Vietnam that show that they fear about what their families think, what their friends think, and also about the gossip in the neighborhood—that is something that’s really strong in Vietnam. So basically the whole social thing is so tiring for HIV-positive people and we're trying to show that HIV is manageable.

Le: There’s stigma coming from the outside that he’s talking about but there’s also the pressure that these people put on themselves because they feel like they’ve done something wrong, they feel like they’re putting their families or lovers at risk. So there’s a lot of pressure that comes from within too and this campaign hopefully works to dispel both of them or alleviate the pressures.

Is there anything that surprised when you were researching for these films?
Le: Yes. So we got a lot of data and did you know that the infection rate of the people living with HIV, that 63 percent of that is through sex and not through injecting drugs, like you would've thought.

We all have this image of this the intravenous drug user in the alley with HIV, you know? But it’s through sex. There’s a little bit of a bias here. If you’re a heavy drug user, you’re not going to be responding to treatment, or you’re not going to outreach centers so we’re getting less data from those people. So there’s a bit of bias, but the discrepancy is huge.

You premiered these films on World AIDS Day in December. What's the reaction been like?
Le: We anticipated a lot of backlash from people because when you look online and you look at the campaigns that are out, there’s nothing this raw, you know? But actually, people don’t really care, as in like, they don’t mind seeing two people kissing, you know? We underestimated people’s appetite for raw messaging. But the feedback’s been really good. Especially at the event—they did a conference in Hué—the feedback’s been really nice because it’s refreshing to see HIV and this whole topic talked about in a way that’s positive and romantic even rather than scary.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.