Conversations with the Living: The Haitian AIDS Crisis

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Archive for the ‘AIDS Orpans’ Category

Kay Angel Suffers a Tragic Loss

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Our hearts go out to the children of Kay Angel Orphanage, and the family and friends of Lia van de Donk who passed away last Wednesday evening June 27th from unknown causes. Her funeral will be tomorrow, Wednesday, July 4th.

We are deeply saddened by the news. Lia was an incredible woman whose work to provide a home and education for children in need and those infected or affected by HIV/AIDS in Jacmel, Haiti is that of an angel on earth.

Thank you Lia for your selfless work. You will be missed.

May the love and support of those who knew Lia help through the days ahead, and the peace that comes from knowing that her incredible work has made a difference in the lives of many children, provide comfort for all who knew her. Her work is eternal, forever true and changeless.

As stated on Kay Angel’s website. “While no one can replace Lia as mother, anchor and advocate to “her” children, the search is on for the rare, right person to step into the role of caretaker,  administrator, construction supervisor, community advocate, manager of visitor and donor relations plus countless other functions.”

Temporary management will be put in place while they search for a successor.

In order for organizations like Kay Angel to continue providing children life saving medication and a loving home, they must be recognized and supported.

If you would like to read more about Lia and Kay Angel Orphanage or donate to the orphanage during this difficult time, please visit their website –

Peace – CWTL



The Children of Kay Angel

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If you missed the previous post, Conversations With Kay Angel, please take a moment to read Conversations With the Living’s introductory piece on Kay Angel, which talks about the work Kay Angel is doing for children in need and infected or affected by HIV/AIDS in Haiti.

We are getting to know a little about the children at Kay Angel prior to our upcoming visit, and we are grateful to Lia, the director of the orphanage, for allowing us to share some of what we are learning about the children she lives and works with everyday. All of the information in the post can also be found on Kay Angel’s website – (or  for Dutch text).

Upon our return to Haiti, the process of meeting the children and telling their story will also give us the opportunity to meet the individuals that contribute to providing the necessary shelter, medication, housing, education and support that gives these children the opportunity to be happy and healthy.

A Day at Kay Angel

Every school day, the children wake at 5.30am to prepare for the day ahead. After bathing, getting dressed for school, and eating breakfast, one of the two nannies administer the anti-retroviral (ARV) medication, which is pre-measured by Lia before being given to the HIV-positive children. The children receive the ARV medication twice daily, and it is very important that it is taken exactly twelve hours apart with food, in order to be affective.

At 6:35am, Lia, her husband or Frantz, the orphanage manager, drive the children to SOS Enfants for the school day, where they study reading, writing, arithmetic, French, Haitian Kreyol, and the arts. Three mornings a week, at 8.30AM, they drive Martin, who is accompanied by one of the nannies due to his severe handicapped (Cerebral Palsy, autistic, microcephelia), to Pazapa, a school for handicapped children, where he receives physiotherapy.

The children are released from school between 11:30am and 1pm, depending on if they attend preschool or elementary school. The older three girls, Youseline, Melinda and Estania (who you will meet shortly) have the opportunity to participate in a dance class after school, twice a week. The older girls all love school, enjoy photography and are very loving and helpful with the younger children.

When the children arrive home from school they have lunch, do their homework assignments, play games, and are administered their medication with dinner, which is served at 6 PM.

If the children need assistance with their homework assignments, Lia, her husband, or one of the nannies with offer help. The children enjoy playing several games, like marry-go-round, where one of the kids will dance in the middle, and Legos, which they received from a Dutch Santa last year. The children also enjoy singing Haitian songs together, while paying musical chairs, using modeling clay, drawing, playing with the dogs, and playing in the front yard with the play tires.

When there is time for additional extracurricular activities, the children enjoy going to the beach, swimming in the sea, and playing in the sand. Sometimes they will even drive up to the mountains and go hiking with Lia. They take cultural, educational day trips to places like Fort Jacques in Kenskoff, and visit family members of the children that they have been able to maintain contact with.

Meet the Children


 10 Years Old                                                                        September 13th, 2007. 6 Years Old.                                                                                                                                                                    

Photos Courtesy of Lia van de Donk

Youseline was born on June 3rd, 2001 in Carrefour, Port au Prince, and raised in Jean Rabel, Lavallee de Jacmel, an area in the mountains above Jacmel. She was raised partly by her mother and partly by her mother’s parents.

When Youseline was 5 years old her mother died of AIDS. Her father had previously passed away from unknown reasons; therefore she was left in the care of her grandparents (her mother’s parents) in the mountains of Lavallée. Unable to continue caring for her, Youseline’s grandparents placed her in the care of Sisters of Charity in Jacmel.  At that time Youseline was very sick and on her way to having AIDS.

Through the CDV/AIDS program at the Hospital St. Michel, Youseline came to Kay Angel on September 13th, 2007 at the age of 6, and became the first child at Kay Angel.

When Youseline arrived she had several sores on her skin and her immune system was very weak.  After completing the last three weeks of tuberculosis treatment, she was immediately enrolled in the AIDS program at Hopital St Michel, where they put her on ARV meds. Within two to three weeks she was already making progress; her skin cleared up, and the sores in and around her mouth disappeared.

Youseline had never attended school, did not know colors, and could not count, read or write. After being home schooled for two and a half years, to bring her up to speed, she began attending second grade, and is now first in her class. She loves school, enjoys learning, and is very smart.

Youseline is a very happy child, loves to sing and dance, and is very social. She has a great laugh and laughs all the time. She feels she is the big sister to the other eleven children


9 Years Old                                                                                       Melinda, January 2008


Photos Courtesy of Lia van de Donk

Like Youseline, Melinda’s mother was HIV-positive and passed away as a result of the virus when Melinda was very young. To make her circumstances even more challenging, Melinda’s father, who had a wandering eye, was unwilling to be tested, insisting it was only Melinda’s mother who had the virus.  These decisions led him to no longer play an active role in Melinda’s life.

Although Melinda’s grandmother made every effort to care for her, she was not able to provide the resources, and Melinda was placed in the care of the Sisters of Charity in Jacmel. After only three months she was sent back to live with her grandmother in Zoranje, northeast of Jacmel.  At that time, Melinda was five and a half years old and Kay Angel was contacted to help provide additional resources.

On December 10, 2007 Melinda was welcomed into Kay Angel. When she arrived, she had molluscum, which is a skin infection, all over her body, but she was immediately put on ARV medication and her skin cleared up quickly.

Melinda had never attended school and now attends school with her two new best friends Youseline and Estania, and is counting, reading, and writing. Last year she finished first grade as first in her class.


11 Years Old                                                                         Estania in her first month at Kay Angel


Photos Courtesy of Lia van de Donk

Estania was born on July 30th, 2000, in Cyvadier, Haiti, east of Jacmel. After her mother passed away from AIDS, Estania was left in the care of her sister. While living with her sister she was taken to Hospital St. Michel, due to issues with her breathing and the coughing up of blood. At the hospital they discovered that Estania was suffering from tuberculosis (TB) and was HIV-positive.

Due to the stigma attached to such a diagnosis, Estania’s sister abandoned her out of fear and lack of understanding about the diseases she was suffering from.

In January 2008, Estania came to live at Kay Angel, where she was placed on oxygen and anti-TB treatment. Due to the severity of her illness, she was quarantined for two months until the treatment was over, and was then able to begin taking ARV medication. Estania responded well to the ARV medication and began to gain weight, but was still regularly struggling with shortness of breath. After visiting a heart specialist in Port-au-Prince, it was discovered that she had an enlarged heart, which is reported to be a common condition amongst children born with HIV. Estania has been given medication to help her heart, and her breathing has improved.

Estania had only minimal schooling before coming to Kay Angel, and since her arrival she now attends school with her friends Youseline and Melinda.


4 Years Old                                                                           Sophie the day we found her


Photos Courtesy of Lia van de Donk

On October 22nd, 2007 Sophie Valentine was abandoned at the steps of Hospital St Michel. The doctors at the hospital estimated that she was born that same day, one month pre-mature, from a mother who was HIV-positive, since she tested HIV- positive. She was taken in by Lia and became the fourth child to become a part of the Kay Angel family.

Sophie was put on oxygen and IV fluids and spent the first two weeks in an incubator. Sophie was also immediately put on prophylaxes medication for her HIV status. Sophie was tested periodically in order to follow her HIV status. Her very last test, at 18 months old, came back negative. Today, Sophie is HIV negative.

Like Youseline, Melinda and Estania, Sophie is happy and in good health. Since their arrival ay Kay Angel they have been provided both physical and emotional support, helping them deal with their illnesses, as well as the emotional scars that come from their personal struggles.  Their lives have drastically changed for the better, and although each of the girls stories are unique, they are all too common in Haiti, where approximately 150,000 children are orphaned by HIV/AIDS and there were as many as 380,000 orphans before the January 2010 earthquake.

It is clear that lives are improved and saved when there is access to necessary resources, but these resources do not come easy to the individuals and organizations providing the support. Additionally, the causes of HIV infection in children point to some of the major issues surrounding HIV in Haiti; issues like education, prevention, access, stigma and overall support available to at-risk and infected individuals.

All of these young girls were infected with HIV through mother-to-child transmission (MTCT), also known as vertical transmission, which remains a significant mode of transmission in Haiti. The historical rate of mother-to-child transmission in Haiti is 27% (UNAIDS, 2004), yet programs designed to reduce the rate of MTCT have proven to be effective and are feasible in developing nations such as Haiti. In order to affectively reduce HIV infection and MTCT there needs to be an emphasis on education, testing, early diagnosis, and overall access and services to women throughout Haiti. Additionally, the deep-rooted stigma attached to the virus that often leads to at-risk individuals going undiagnosed and passing the virus onto their spouse or child must be addressed.

Conversations With the Living is telling the story of Kay Angel and the children there, because they are stories of hope existent within the harsh reality of child orphans in Haiti. We must shed light on the good work being done and what is working, as well as bring and keep attention on the work that still needs to be done. In order for organizations like Kay Angel to continue providing children life saving medication and a loving home, they must be recognized and supported.

If the work being done by Kay Angel were adopted and expanded upon, the impact would be an amazing benefit to Haiti as a whole, and bridge the gap between the children affected and infected with HIV and the communities in which they live.

We will continue to keep you posted on the documentary’s progress on our production blog and urge you to visit ad subscribe to Kay Angel’s blog to read more about the amazing work they are doing. You can find their blog and more information at

Special thanks to Lia van de Donk for taking the time to provide photos and written content to the above post and for allowing us to share the incredible work of Kay Angel with you.

Thank you for your continued support.

– The Conversations With the Living team

World AIDS Day and Conversations With the Living

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Today is World AIDS Day. Since 1988 World AIDS Day has been held on December 1st and provides the opportunity for people around the world to unite in the fight against HIV, offer support to those affected and infected with HIV, and honor the lives of those who have died as a result of the virus.

World AIDS Day is one day, every year, dedicated to raising money, fighting prejudice, increasing awareness, improving education and helping people understand the facts surrounding HIV/AIDS globally. World AIDS Day is a way to remind people that AIDS is still a serious issue affecting millions of people each year. Although numerous organizations and activists work everyday to address the issue of HIV/AIDS, the global community needs to remember the importance of raising awareness of HIV year round. The global crisis goes relatively unnoticed in the mainstream media, and oftentimes, unless directly affected, people tend to know very little about HIV/AIDS in their own communities, cities, and countries. World AIDS day is an opportunity to learn facts about HIV and use that knowledge to help in your community.

Even as scientific advances are made in HIV treatment, many people still go without access to resources and struggle with properly educating people about the virus, which plays a large role in reducing infection rates and fighting the discrimination and stigma often attached to the virus.

There are currently 33 million people living with HIV. This year 1.8 million HIV-positive persons died of Aids-related-illnesses and as many as 2.7 million were infected, that is over seven thousand people a day. HIV is a threat to men, women and children on all continents around the world.


This year’s World AIDS Day theme is Getting to Zero, which focuses on three targets, Zero new HIV infections, Zero discrimination, and Zero AIDS-related deaths. This is the goal of all goals. This is a call to arms, the very point of the global fight against HIV. There is a long way to go, but by focusing on reducing infection, stigma and deaths, given the progress made within populations with access to live saving medications and nutrition, this is a goal that cultivates great hope and aims to prove what can be accomplished with compassion and cooperation efforts.

Conversations With the Living is a documentary film that focuses on this hope and the amazing progress made when there is access to resources.


Conversations With the Living is a feature length documentary that focuses on HIV-positive orphans and the daily lives of these children. In the process, the film highlights the network dedicated to bringing HIV-positive orphans the medication, food, housing, education, and emotional support that keeps them alive. We will trace the path of that medication from the child through the entire network that made it possible, showing the dedicated individuals that work tirelessly every day, grinding through routine and unforeseen challenges and providing real solutions to Haiti’s battle against HIV. It takes effort, organization, continued funding, and unerring dedication on the part of countless people to give these children a chance for survival and a future where they can be engaged and accepted in their communities.

As government agencies and aid organizations tighten their belts due to the struggling economy; HIV, and the core issues that make it difficult to combat, like poverty, malnourishment, and lack of access to medication, are tightening their grip on the most vulnerable populations. But, there are people doing incredible work, providing both access and support to those affected by and infected with HIV in Haiti, and we are telling their story.

The ultimate goal of Conversations with the Living is to draw attention to HIV/AIDS in the developing world and continue to raise awareness of the need to support AIDS organizations around the world. We are determined to show that HIV progress does not happen by accident and that the network of caregivers and activists that work together to provide for these children is intricate and delicate.

This network provides real hope for the future of these children and represents what is positive and possible. The positive strides made against the disease in countries like Haiti and the people who make it possible must not only be recognized, but also supported. Raising and maintaining awareness about the efforts of dedicated HIV workers must happen and their work must be expanded upon.


In Haiti, an estimated 40,000 people die of AIDS every year. These are grim numbers when considering the size of the country, which is roughly the size of Maryland. When taking into account that a large percentage of at-risk Haitians who do not get tested due to access and fear of social stigma, experts believe the national statistic is much higher than recorded; some believe as high as 11%.Currently one in twenty Haitians is infected with HIV/AIDS and there are over 150,000 AIDS orphan.

No one should ever die of a treatable disease. Haiti’s struggle with AIDS and the elements of history that have contributed to its prevalence, still exist and continue to exacerbate the issue. The failure to provide access and address the societal issues surrounding HIV in Haiti only maintains and perpetuates a system that produces more death, deprivation, and disease.

For people living in developed countries around the world, HIV has become a manageable disease, however the majority of the world’s people living in the developing world are not afforded that luxury. Their children are the next generation of survivors, advocates and activists, and they are proof positive of what is possible given the resources and support.

When the HIV-positive are provided the proper resources in Haiti, they are happy, healthy and hopeful. Lives are being saved and people need to know what is working in Haiti and what needs to be done to maintain this work and broaden its reach. 

There is a vital need to raise money, increase awareness, fight prejudice and improve education and your participation is needed, not just today, but everyday.

– Leigh E. Carlson


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Conversations With the Living recently made contact with Lia Van de Donk, the director of Kay Angel orphanage in Jacmel, Haiti, which provides a home, education and support for children in need and those infected or affected by HIV/AIDS.

After a very positive conversation with Lia regarding her work at Kay Angel and the mission and purpose of our film, it was clear that Kay Angel’s everyday work to provide HIV-positive and orphaned children in need, access to life saving medication, housing, education and support aligned with the mission of Conversations With the Living and the message of our film.

We have been in contact with Lia since our first discussion in order to stay updated on the progress at Kay Angel, as well as to coordinate a visit upon our return to Haiti, in order to document the incredible work being done to improve the lives of these children.

We are inspired by the work of Kay Angel and their willingness to take on the challenge of caring for this often forgotten demographic, and the Conversations With the Living team wants to introduce those who support this project and the work being done to help children affected by and infected with HIV/AIDS to Kay Angel.

The Story of Kay Angel

Kay Angel, Creole for Angel House, opened its doors in 2007 and is currently home to 12 children; 5 are HIV+ and all are lucky to be alive.

Their first home was rented for one year in Jacmel before they moved to St. Helene, another neighborhood in Jacmel. In St. Helene the children of school age attended either the local kindergarten, a school for the handicapped or were taught by a private teacher at the orphanage. When the January 12th earthquake destroyed the children’s schools and the orphanage, Lia and the children lived in the streets for about 2 weeks, and then in tents for 15 months.  On April 1st of this year Kay Angel was able to rent a temporary home in Zorange for 1 year, while construction of their permanent home is being completed.

Today, they are in the process of building their permanent home on a piece of land named Sacrifice, which they were able to buy this past year with money raised through individual donations from family and friends and outreach on their two dedicated blogs in the United States and Holland, Lia’s native country.

We emphasize home, because Lia, who lives with the children along with her husband, makes sure that the daily needs of the children are met and that a family environment is provided, where the children are loved, accepted and supported. Along with a small local staff, they make sure that the children are fed, attend school and that their medications are measured and administered twice a day.

The children that are HIV-positive are in the Aids program of USAID at the local hospital St. Michel, which is a free program that includes a monthly examination by the doctor, Dr Raphael, and a monthly supply of ARV meds. When asked about how their home manages to function and provide resources year round, Lia shared that aside from individual donations, organizations like USAID have been instrumental in providing the children’s health care needs. Without this program and the free medical supplies that it donates, it would be extremely difficult to care for the children that are HIV+, due to the tremendous expense of ARV medication. Additionally, Kay Angel has its own paid Haitian pediatrician on staff that visits Kay Angel once a month to consult the children, and subscribe additional medication or vitamin and protein supplements as needed, which are paid for by Kay Angel.

Some help in the form of rice, cooking oil and beans comes monthly from the World Food Programme (WFP), and any additional nutritional needs are met through purchases from local markets and vendors.

After a long struggle to find adequate schools for the children, especially those that are HIV-positive, Lia was able to enroll the children in SOS Enfants in Cyvadier, with the exception of one child who attends PAZAPA, a school for handicapped and special needs children located in town. The children have adjusted extraordinarily well to the school environment and have received good marks. The children’s performance in school has been a great accomplishment and source of excitement, due to the fact that prior to coming to Kay Angel, the children had not been afforded the opportunity to attend school.

The majority of education in Haiti is privatized, therefore families or organizations supporting children, must pay to send their children to school. With 80% of the population living under the poverty line and 54% in abject poverty, providing children with an education often means the family goes without other basic necessities or the children are simply not educated.

The children living at Kay Angel are the fortunate. The children wake up everyday in a loving environment, where their mental and physical well-being are the priority, and the benefits of this environment provide an example of what is possible if people focus on the needs in the communities they serve and advocate for substantial change and real solutions.

There were an estimated 380,000 orphans before the earthquake, as many as 225,000 children living as retaveks (child slaves), and approximately 150,000 orphaned by HIV/AIDS.

Kay Angel works with these children, not only because there is a need, but also because they have seen through their own work that children provided the proper resources and support can live happy and healthy lives. The children they care for are proof-positive of what is possible given compassion and cooperation efforts, and they are an example of what is working in Haiti.

Both Kay Angel and Conversations With the Living are focused on HIV-positive orphans and the importance of recognizing the effort, organization, continued funding, and unerring dedication required to give these children a chance for survival and a future where they can be engaged and accepted in their communities. Kay Angel is a place where the methods used on the ground in Haiti and within the Haitian community shed light on the small, yet existing network of people dedicated to creating a better life and future for Haiti and her children.

While, we prepare to return to Haiti, Lia and her staff work daily, around the clock, juggling time taking care of the children’s needs and the construction of the new orphanage. We look forward to sharing their continued progress with you and to introducing you to some of the amazing children at Kay Angel.

– Leigh E. Carlson

We Need an On-Line Rally…

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…which means that we need you. We have launched our on-line campaign on Indie Go Go to raise the funds to complete Conversations With the Living, but let’s call it an on-line demonstration; a place where people, activists, advocates, artists and filmmakers gather / assemble and give what they can, whether time, energy or money for a common purpose. This project’s team is made up of individuals focused on what is good in Haiti, and this film highlights those making a difference, an impact that has saved lives and will save millions more. Let’s get together for this common purpose. Why? Because these messages, these films that spark these conversations have a real qualitative and quantitative impact, and these conversations need to begin and need to continue.

Although the issue of HIV/AIDS is complex, people are working together to help sustain and expand a network dedicated to HIV prevention, care and support that is working in Haiti and their story MUST be told.

If you are following our project and this campaign then you know that for nearly three years we have managed to continue through donated time, efforts and services, as well as small monetary donations. Your contribution is critical to the completion of this project and we will continue to make sure that the critical work that health care workers, volunteers and patients are doing in Haiti receives the long overdue attention it deserves. It is this work by Haitians for Haitians that is saving lives and must continue.

Become a part of the CONVERSATION today!

– LC

CWTL Production Diary: Getting Moving Again with the LA AIDS Walk and then some…

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Monday July, 18th – 7:30PM:

Hello from Los Angeles, where the Conversations With the Living team has registered  for the LA AIDS WALK, which is happening on October 16th, 2011. Members of our team have walked for the past several years as individuals, but this year we are walking as a team, joining grassroots fundraisers and community activists who raise millions of dollars for organizations working to make a difference in the lives of people affected by HIV/AIDS.

AIDS WALK LOS ANGELES  has raised $66 million for HIV programs and services in Los Angeles County since 1985 and unites people of all ages, races, and backgrounds.

These individuals and organizations are pulling together in an organized effort to provide urgently needed funds that will go to provide critical resources to those affected by HIV, including food, medication, housing, emotional support and to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS in their community and across the globe.

We will be getting our group site up to speed and ready to share with you so you can track our progress as we work to reach our fundraising goal.

I will post the information once our group page is set-up and hope you will visit the site to learn a little more about what the LA community is doing to fight HIV/AIDS. As you know it is not just about October 16th, 2011 in LA or December 1st on WORLD AIDS DAY;  events like these all over the world bring people together, garner support from the community and yield impressive results – proof positive that when a focused effort is made and the critical need to fund HIV/AIDS initiatives is present in dialogue about community and global health there can be amazing outcomes. Once or twice a year is not enough, but it is an amazing opportnity to become involved and have your voice heard. Many of those involved in these very important events have made the fight against HIV/AIDS their life’s work. Conversations With the Living is looking forward to supporting these organziations in their work and hopes that our project will help shed light on the significance of their efforts and the positive results of their dedication.

As Conversations With the Living continues to move forward and works to complete its film focused on HIV/AIDS in Haiti, a project over two years in the making, we understand the importance of being involved in the global fight against HIV, and remain inspired by the support in communities like LA and NYC for a disease that prior to community support carried with it a crippling uncertainty. My hope is that the same level of  engagement and acceptance for those suffering from HIV/AIDS will be found in developing countries like Haiti. This is one of the many things that we are working for.

Will post our video from the LA AIDS Walk from the last two years shortly.

– LC

CWTL Production Diary: Day 51 + 2 Years

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16:11 EST: Finished mapping out the complete narrative last night. The process has been like pulling teeth. Even harder is listening to where the narrative wants to go, as opposed to pushing toward where I’d like it to go. People always say that stories tell themselves and the person(s) telling the story are simply conduits. I’d be inclined to agree. Throughout the process as I put more and more facts down on the page, I kept asking, “What is the real story here? Where is the drama? Where is the conflict?” I kept looking for the dramatic and the spectacular. We’re dealing with HIV+ orphans, community volunteers, primary caregivers, hospital administrators, international donors – all of whom are involved in making sure that every day, one child gets to take one pill that continues to save his life. In a larger sense, there are thousands of people dedicated to controlling HIV around the world, whether it be the elimination of mother-to-child infections or monitoring new HIV infections. Their work is unspectacular (by movie standards) and a grind. And that, I dare say, is the story. The unspectacular grind by normal people who dedicate their lives to long hours, little pay, and heavy emotional tolls. They are the working class heroes of the fight against HIV, not the superstars like the Paul Farmers or Jean Papes or Sean Penns or any other famous name you might know (with all due respect to them). The big names might have the big ideas, but all of the anonymous people are the ones that make it happen.

Too often documentaries focus on the spectacular, the dramatic, the big story that makes us, the audience, feel important because we are clever enough to be watching. But that is not real. In reality, it’s as contrived as narrative film (if not more disingenuous). The viewing public likes drama. Filmmakers like drama. The film industry likes drama. And as docs increasingly become big money-makers, it becomes more about the drama than the truth.

Sometimes the truth is mundane. That should not make it any less compelling.

Written by conversationswiththeliving

February 23, 2011 at 4:25 pm