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Claudia Pryor Malis looks at Blacks and HIV
Extended for the Online Edition of Windy City Times
by Sam Worley
2009-09-09

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After more than three decades, Claudia Pryor Malis gave up a career as a network news producer to make independent films. She is currently finishing work on a documentary on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Black communities.

Called Why Us?: Left Behind and Dying, Pryor Malis made the film with the help of a group of students recruited from a Pittsburgh high school. Students transition from the role of interviewee to the role of interviewer—though they are themselves put in front of the camera and questioned, they maintain a strong voice over the course of the film through their questions to HIV/AIDS experts, community activists, and people living with AIDS. One student, Tamira Noble, narrates the film.

Winding its way through the thicket of issues that surrounds HIV among Black people, Why Us? addresses problems of education, sex, homophobia, incarceration, neighborhood "renewal" and migration—in short, the problem of figuring out how to fight a disease that is, as Pryor Malis said, "as much a social phenomenon as a medical and scientific one."

Why Us?, which will show in New York and Los Angeles next month in order to qualify for Academy Award consideration, has not yet found a distributor.

Windy City Times recently talked with Claudia Pryor Malis while she was in town for a family gathering. She began by explaining her decision to leave network television and pursue her own vision:

Claudia Pryor Malis: There was a meeting one day in which a senior producer said, "I want you guys to come up with ideas, and they need to be about"—I'm paraphrasing—"they need to be about kids, because kids really get the audience going— [ kids who are ] blond, blue-eyed." She actually said that. It was one of those moments where I just froze, and I realized that there was movement all around me, other people were listening, talking, and breathing—except for me. And it was like, I can win little battles here, but I am not going to win this war.

Windy City Times: Do you feel like the network's vision changed over the years that you were there? What do you think caused that change?

CLAUDIA PRYOR MALIS: It was always about ratings, but it became even more about ratings and that defined who was the audience that would be the most interested. And then you got to, who is our audience? Who is our audience that we care about? Not just who's watching, but who's watching who's got disposable dollars? Whose dollars do we want?

WCT: So you left the network. What was the next step?

CLAUDIA PRYOR MALIS: The next step was that it took me a long time to throw away my business cards. At the time they said "Senior Producer, NBC News." Oh my God, it is such an identity.

WCT: I can imagine.

CLAUDIA PRYOR MALIS: It really is. I went through a long drought. Then Frontline asked me to make a film on homophobia. Big subject, you know? The result of that was a film that I made called "The Assault on Gay America." And it was the story of Billy Jack [ Gaither ] , a young man who was brutally murdered in Alabama. The assignment I'd been given was, tell us why we are so homophobic. And when I came back I said, why? [ Because ] we are afraid. We are afraid of gender roles. We are deeply, deeply afraid of not fitting into what is male and what is female. It is the first division. And I came to understand that it is—as much as it's something for a Black woman to say—it's even a deeper division than race. It's older, it's deeper. People may hate, but what do you think hatred is based on? It's a product of fear. That's what it's borne of. So I got to make that film. I got to begin to understand homophobia in my own community.

WCT: Had you done anything about HIV before [ filming Why Us? ] ?

CLAUDIA PRYOR MALIS: The very first time I did when I was a producer at World News Tonight. I did a story about how HIV was going to move from the white gay male population—this was 1987—to minorities. And we had a hard time selling that in 1987. The anchorman said to me, that's ridiculous, this is a white gay male disease. And the irony of that is, the very last story before he died, years later, was interviewing some Black men who were basically on the down low. ABC did a very wonderful, smart documentary on HIV in the Black community. So I've always been tickled by that piece of irony. But in 1987, it was like, what?

WCT: How did you find the narrator? She was very good.

CLAUDIA PRYOR MALIS: Tamira [ Noble ] . I found her in a biology class. It was one of the classes we went to to recruit students for this research project. The kids were extremely hostile. She was noticeable because she was so quiet. She never said a word, she just stared straight at me the whole time. Then she was one of twenty who eventually signed up. The third session, she said something that knocked my socks off. She said, she recalled being in a health class once and having someone come in and talk about being HIV-positive, and her reaction—she listened to the woman's story and at the end the woman said, "I have HIV," and [ Tamira ] said, oh my god, that woman touched my desk! Am I going to be all right? And she said, I never want to be that ignorant again. And the more that I worked with her, the more that I knew that it had to be in her voice. It absolutely had to be.

WCT: Was that something that you hadn't initially planned on?

CLAUDIA PRYOR MALIS: No. In my original proposal, I was going to put [ students ] up as evaluators so they would tell us what was good, what was bad. And I even thought, maybe we could have them do some shooting, and I had raised extra money from Pittsburgh foundations to buy them cameras. They didn't want to pick up a camera, ever. They wanted to ask questions. And that was another "a ha!" moment. They understood that they are always being researched. They defined power as the ability to ask questions.

WCT: I wanted to know about the process of vetting what information you were going to put in the film. I was really impressed by how much you covered—it just went in all these different directions, and I was wondering how you decided what to keep in.

CLAUDIA PRYOR MALIS: It was extremely difficult in terms of an editing process. Basically, anything that didn't speak directly to how this microbe winds its way through the Black experience had to go. My purpose was to explain, in as narrative a way as possible, why HIV flourishes in Black populations. And the reasons are scientific, socioeconomic and cultural. The reasons are all of those, and they all intersect.

I could make a film just on the different theories about the origins of AIDS. There's a film to be made just on the deconstruction of homophobia and masculinity and the Bible in Black America. And there's a film just on heterosexual characters. But if you do just one of them, you're letting too many people off the hook, by saying, well, okay, that's them. My purpose is to say no, this is us. This is all of us.

More information about the documentary can be found at www.diversityfilms.org . To watch the trailer, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=9a7_iO48OTY.


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