Doin’ My Drugs


The road of an activist can be long and lonely.

(2019) Documentary (FreestyleThomas Buttenschøn, Yellowman, Danny Zaya, John Chiti, TK, Chris Aka, Bode Fashinasi, Cana Buttenschøn, Chef 187, DJ Len, Peter Lausted, Frances Kasonde, Maiko Zulu, DJ Taffy, Brian Bwembya, Jens Buttenschøn, DJ Vain, Mwiza Zulu, Inger Lis Lausted, Sista D Zulu . Directed by Tyler Q. Rosen

 

The politicization of illness didn’t start with COVID-19. In the 80s and 90s, HIV and AIDS carried with it a stigma that the person afflicted with it was essentially getting what they deserved because they were having sex. Never mind that sexual intercourse isn’t the only way to contract the virus; never mind that not everyone who contracted the disease was gay. The stigma remains associated with the disease to this day, particularly in Africa where homosexuality is much more of a taboo.

Thomas Muchimba Buttenschøn was born of a Zambian mother and a Danish father, and was born in Zambia. His parents discovered after his birth that they both had AIDS; they returned to Denmark which had a better health care system, but Thomas’ mother died in Zambia while visiting her family there, and his father died in Denmark shortly thereafter. Worse yet, Thomas was born HIV positive. His prospects for a long life seemed unlikely at the time.

But Thomas is 35 years old now with a wife and son of his own, and a thriving musical career.  Neither his wife nor his son have HIV or AIDS; medical advances have made it possible for Thomas to live a normal life, with the help of a drug regimen that he adheres to without fail. However, not too many people realize that AIDS is no longer the death sentence it once was. Thomas returned home to Zambia to spread the word that AIDS can be overcome, and to help ease the negativity surrounding those afflicted with the disease.

It’s not an easy task. Cultural taboos that go back thousands of years are difficult to overcome. On top of that, Zambia is a heavily Christian nation and the more evangelical elements have turned their backs on those suffering with the disease. Given that those who are diagnosed HIV positive are often shunned by their families and communities, it’s no wonder that the disease often goes unreported, leading to a more virulent spreading of the disease in Zambia.

Thomas’ mission is to educate and inform. Linking up with other musicians such as Danny Zaya, and Sister D Zulu who have been AIDS activists for years, even when it was unpopular to do so. Their songs were often banned by the government, although those anti-AIDS bans are starting to ease now. Thomas and his fellow musicians decided to put on a concert in the village where his mother was born – and eventually died. The price of admission; get tested.

Weaved in with the locals is Thomas’ own story which is at times, heartbreaking. His father was the subject of a news story in Denmark; he would be dead less than a year after it aired. But the baby-faced Thomas, while clearly affected by the tragedy, also seems to have moved on from it, having been raised by foster parents who helped him overcome the bleak outlook his father had – which, at the time, was understandable – and grow to live a full life of his own.

The documentary is very informative about the current state of HIV/AIDS and how it is regarded in Africa. Judging on posts I’ve seen on social media here in America, I would venture to see that ignorance about AIDS isn’t limited to that continent at all. Many Zambians were startled to discover that the drugs that have given Thomas a normal life are available there for free, given away by the government seeking to end the epidemic.

There is a lot of music in this documentary, and it is a bit surprising; the music is pretty Western-sounding to my ears. This isn’t a music documentary, however, despite the fact that musicians make up the central focus in many ways; this is about fighting a disease and more to the point, ignorance of that disease which is perhaps deadlier than the disease itself. That is true of any disease, including the one affecting our country right now.

REASONS TO SEE: Glimpses of other cultures are always welcome.
REASONS TO AVOID: Approach might be a little too low-key; needs some urgency.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The HIV/AIDS infection rate in Zambia was 14% when this was filmed in a country of 17 million people; the rate is likely much higher given the reluctance of people to report their condition as detailed in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Elyse

When the Bough Breaks: A Documentary About Postpartum Depression


Three brave women discuss that which society deems to be a stigma.

(2016) Documentary (Gravitas Ventures) Brooke Shields (narrator), Carnie Wilson, Aarti Sequeira, Lindsay Gerszt, Diana Lynn Barnes, Bradley Gerszt, Haiti Harrison, Peggy Tanous, Naomi Knoles, Joy Burkhard, Raul Martinez,, Jenna Liddy, Tanya Neybould, Jane Honikman, David Arredondo, Vivian Burt, Jacqueline Goodman, Angela Burliing, Staci Janisse, Randy Gibbs, Candyce Carpenter. Directed by Jamielyn Lippman

 

For a long time women who felt down after giving birth were dismissed as having “the baby blues” or some such. “You’ll get over it,” was the prevailing logic. “Suck it up and get back to cleaning the house!” It hasn’t been until relatively recently that postpartum depression was seen as something serious – and occasionally lethal.

The first smart decision the filmmakers made was getting Brooke Shields involved as a narrator and producer. She in many ways became the face of postpartum depression when she wrote a book confessing her own issues and how she got through it – and was promptly read the riot act by Tom Cruise for admitting to taking medication for it. Some of you might remember that embarrassing moment in the actor’s career.

The genesis of the project was Lindsay Gerszt who suffered from a severe postpartum depression after the birth of her son Hunter. The filmmakers follow her through six years of a variety of different therapies, including acupuncture and electronic stimulation. We see how her husband Bradley copes (or doesn’t) with her situation, which I think is an excellent move on the part of Lippman – depression doesn’t just affect a single member of the family. Everyone has to deal with it.

There are a lot of talking heads here, mainly of women who have been through one of the various forms of PPD and some who have survived the worst of all – Postpartum Psychosis whose sufferers often have religious-based hallucinations and do bodily harm to themselves or their children including murdering them.

We do get some clinical information from various psychologists and specialists but the fact remains that PPD can strike any woman regardless of family history, social standing or culture. There are some things that can make you more susceptible to it (like a history of depression) but it can literally happen to anyone.

The filmmakers do talk about one of the worst aspects of PPD and that’s the stigma attached to it. There’s basically a stigma attached to any mental issue but in the case of Postpartum it really gets in the way of getting well. A lot of women won’t talk about the feelings they have because they are ashamed and feel that they’re “bad mommies.” Postpartum Depression often affects the bonding between women and their babies; women report feeling like they need to get away from their babies and don’t want to be around them. They cry often and sleep a great deal. Even the sight of women and their children in the mall can set off feelings of inadequacy. In some cases that feeling of alienation extends to their husbands/significant others and family members often bear the brunt of the victim’s frustrations and anger.

Again, with celebrities like Brooke Shields and Carnie Wilson (of Wilson-Phillips) coming out to share their experiences, things are getting a little better in that regard but we’re only starting to catch up now. Still screening for Postpartum Depression and Postpartum Psychosis isn’t standard in most states and for some women and their children, that can be fatal.

One of the faults I have with this movie is that it isn’t terribly representative. Most of the women here are well-to-do, live in beautiful homes, drive expensive cars – and most importantly can afford all manners of therapy for as long as they need it. That’s simply not the norm however; towards the end we get the experiences of a couple of families who are less affluent but in both cases it’s sufferers of Postpartum Psychosis whose illness leads to tragic ends. I think the movie would do a whole lot more good if women of less means can relate to the women in the film; I suspect many will look at the movie and say “But I can’t afford any of that” and instead of getting help they do like women have done through the ages and just suck it up, buttercup. It looks like nearly all of the women are from Southern California as well.

I will add this caveat that I saw this immediately after watching HBO’s excellent Cries from Syria which really makes this look a little bit like First World Problems and that’s achingly unfair. Post-Partum Psychosis claims the lives of women and children all over the globe and to put an exclamation point during the end credits, we are informed that two of the women interviewed for the film had taken their own lives since filming had been completed. If you are pregnant, about to be pregnant or know someone who is pregnant or about to be, you owe it to yourself – and them – to give this a watch. It could help you save the life of someone you love.

REASONS TO GO: The filmmakers make some excellent points about the demonization of mental illness.
REASONS TO STAY: Dwells too long on the experiences of celebrities and the rich; I would have liked to see more focus on women who don’t have the means to get six years worth of therapy.
FAMILY VALUES: Some frank discussion of violent events and childbirth as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project began when Lindsay Gerszt and Tanya Neybould discussed their postpartum depression with their friend filmmaker Jamielyn Lippman and the three determined to make a documentary about the condition which remains stigmatized.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Babies
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Founder