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A battle that can be won

Rampant: How a City Stopped a Plague is about Sydney and the gay men, sex workers and intravenous drug users who led the fight against HIV epidemic — and won.

Showing at this year’s Out in Africa Film Festival, the documentary is an inspiring history about the first city in the world where HIV met its match.

Told with trademark Australian dry wit and candour, the film shows how those stigmatised as infected and infectors in the early days of the plague developed the so-called ‘Australian model” of dealing with HIV: prevention.

‘The lepers took over the Aids colony, aimed all their bad habits and wild instincts at the virus, broke the law, offended everyone and saved tens of thousands of lives,” says the filmmaker, Vanessa Midwinter-Pitt.

A key was to make condoms sexy among gay men. As one interviewee in the film puts it: ‘We could [come] splash anywhere”. The only way was to employ language gay men could respond to, and only gay men could create and run those campaigns successfully. And they did.

Rampant: How a City Stopped a Plague is about the risk taken by the health ministry, at a federal and state level, by joining forces with and funding those who were at the front line of the epidemic. Those at risk spearheaded the prevention campaign themselves and it paid off. This happened in the face of the religious right, led by notorious Sydney gay basher, the Reverend Fred Niles. The reverend still hosts an annual prayer for rain that he and his followers hope will interrupt the city’s annual queer Mardi Gras.

The government also funded the Australian Sex Workers’ Collective to produce an educational campaign. As a prominently featured sex worker (retired I assume) puts it: ‘For the first time in history a government funded a bunch of whores.” The same woman describes the first meeting to establish a needle exchange programme for intravenous drug users: ‘Junkies, doctors, nuns, whores all working together, what a crew!”
It took a little longer for the government to back needle exchanges. For many years the programme ran illegally, with the police turning a blind eye.

Finally the campaign was moved to the heterosexual community. To destigmatise the disease and educate the hetero community, the famous ‘Grim Reaper” campaign began. Effective in its shock value, offence and seriousness, it was formulated by the then editor of one of Australia’s tabloids, The Daily Telegraph.
Rampant is the story of a very different society to ours, so what does such a documentary offer us? Two things, I think. First, there’s a lesson in not stigmatising HIV/Aids. The Australian model of prevention was started in communities that were already out of the mainstream, already stigmatised.

They in turn dealt with the epidemic with compassion instead of opprobrium.

Second, the documentary says a lot about the impact of public messages. If carefully crafted campaigns such as that in Sydney enjoy success then the opposite is also true. The devastating results of respected and revered public figures sending messages of denialism and poor advice is lethal. Local politicians seem wholly unaware of this.

Rampant is a history of a city that stopped the plague with a ‘response driven by anger”. South African society obviously has plenty to be angry about when faced with the consequences of HIV. The documentary teaches us that it is never too late to launch an effective prevention campaign, in partnership with the diversity of communities affected by the disease.

Robert Colman is a theatre director who divides his time between Johannesburg and Sydney. The Out in Africa Gay and Lesbian Film festival is showing Rampant: How a city Stopped the Plague on its programme running in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Attend a panel discussion on the documentary on September 17 with Vanessa Ludwig, (Triangle Project) and Nicoli Natrass (Aids and Society Research Unit). At Nu Metro V&A Waterfront, Cape Town

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Robert Colman
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