Powerful look at kids, AIDS


December 01, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Television's response to the AIDS epidemic has advanced from denial in the 1980s to shock at the reach and ravages of the disease in the 1990s. In recent years, TV's narrative has become increasingly empathetic with particular emphasis on the discrimination suffered by those living with HIV or full-blown AIDS. Child victims have become the medium's favorite way to tell the story.

Today -- World AIDS Day -- a new storyline is emerging on the small screen: the celebration of those with HIV or AIDS, who nevertheless are living creative, courageous and productive lives. None of the specials airing today tells that story better than The Courage to Live: Kids, South Africa and AIDS, a Nick News special with Linda Ellerbee airing at 9 p.m. on the Nickelodeon cable channel.

Aimed at adolescent viewers, the special runs only 30 minutes. But when the words and pictures are this straightforward, unadorned and elegant, that may be long enough to engage even the shortest of attention spans.

The report, co-produced by Rolfe Tessem, unfolds as Ellerbee journeys across South Africa visiting children, teens and adults who are living with HIV/AIDS. Beginning in townships near Cape Town, Ellerbee travels north to Zitha and Johannesburg. More than 1,000 people die of AIDS each day in South Africa -- a toll matched nowhere else on Earth.

The Courage to Live starts with a fast and clear recitation of some facts aimed at educating its young audience about the disease and how it is transmitted. Ellerbee explains that "you can get HIV in three ways." A mother who is HIV-positive can give it to her child at birth, she says. Or HIV can be transmitted by blood transfusion or sexual contact. Ellerbee stresses the latter by saying: "especially if you have unprotected sex."

Her first stop is in the township of Guguletu, where she explains to viewers, "We are in Guguletu to meet Knisa. Knisa is one of the oldest living people in South Africa who was born with the AIDS virus. She is 15."

Ellerbee's style of writing and narration relies on the power of facts simply stated and sharply focused. It is in direct opposition to the overblown and noisy style of most network newsmagazine correspondents and writers.

"In school, the first time they found out I was sick, it was pretty hard, because no one wanted to stand near me," Knisa says. "My friends say they can't stay with me, they can't play with me."

As Knisa explains the pain she felt as a result of her friends' fear of contact with her, the screen shows Ellerbee and the girl walking hand in hand through the township. The report is filled with Ellerbee touching and hugging the people she interviews.

By the end of the interview, Knisa is explaining how much better her life is now that her friends understand the disease. "I'm not sure I'm going to survive, but I enjoy my friends and I love my school. Nobody would think that I'm sick. I'm like all the other children. That's how I live."

Each of the interviews moves along that same path toward an affirmation of life, but anyone who knows the work of Ellerbee -- herself a survivor of breast cancer -- knows there is little room in her reports for false sentiment or Pollyanna endings. This report has a surprise ending that I won't discuss for fear of diminishing its power. But the simple, 10-second coda infuses everything that came before with power that resonates well beyond the final credits.

The Courage to Live has the courage to tell kids the truth about AIDS. Such testimony has been a long time coming on TV. One can only wonder how many lives would have been saved if this marvelous medium of mass communication had embraced such truths years ago.

The Courage to Live

When: Tonight at 9

Where: Nickelodeon cable channel

In brief: Linda Ellerbee takes an enlightened look at young people living bravely with HIV/AIDS

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