RH Reality Interview: Feminist Filmmaker Tackles HIV Epidemic Among Black Women

Sarah Seltzer

Emily Abt, director of the documentary "All of Us," talks to Rewire's Sarah Seltzer about the HIV epidemic among black women, gender inequality and what men will get out of the film.


Emily Abt, a feminist filmmaker, and Mehret Mandefro, studying to be
a doctor, met in London when they were both on Fulbright scholarships.
Emily later turned to Mehret and two of her HIV-positive patients–Chevelle
and Tara–to star in a documentary film about the
epidemic of AIDS among African
American women
. All of
the women involved in the film realized that cultural and social misogyny
takes a personal toll, and that regardless of their background, women
who have internalized sexist beliefs are in danger of being ill-equipped
to protect themselves from the disease. After hearing Chevelle introduce
a ten minute trailer of the film at a downtown reading last month, Rewire’s Sarah Seltzer
called Emily, who’s already busy on her next feature film, to talk about
the lessons she learned making "
All of Us."

SS: After working on a series of films with feminist themes,
what made you want to tackle HIV as your next topic?


EA: I’m very much of a feminist filmmaker! That word sometimes gets dropped
in press coverage, but I wear that title proudly. What inspired me is
that Mehret and I found more similarities than you might think between
our own behavior, our peers’ behavior and the behavior of women who
were becoming infected. The
film is about women’s risky behavior in the bedroom and the social forces
that often create that, or are behind that.

SS: So you believe giving women power is crucial to stopping
the spread of disease?


EA: Absolutely, examining gender inequity as it plays out in the bedroom
and looking at issues of love, trust, intimacy and how those can be
factors in the spread of this disease.

SS: I know you mention abstinence-only policies in the
film. Do you think the spread of HIV among young black women can partially
be explained by a lack of comprehensive sex ed?


EA: Definitely. We end this film with a scene where Mehret and Chenelle
go to Brooklyn to talk to teenage girls. The fact that there is no decent
national sex ed totally inspired me, the side effects from Bush’s approach
to abstinence-only stuff. The film is very much a rallying cry for better
sexual health education and outreach.

SS: You call the completed film the "emergency edition."

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EA: Yeah absolutely. HIV is the biggest cause of death for African-American
women ages 18-35. It’s unnacceptable that this
statistic doesn’t merit more public outcry and attention.
When making the film we kept thinking that we’d get scooped, that other
filmmakers and journalists would get the word out. We kept expecting
the New York Times Magazine would do a cover story. That never happened, and
it still hasn’t happened, even though it has taken us four years to make the film. It’s
kind of sad.

My last film was about the human impact of welfare reform. That
film did very well. Meanwhile, "All of Us" hasn’t gotten picked up by a
network. We’re going to see it through, we’re going to do a theatrical
release in September.

SS: Did the hoopla surrounding race vs. gender in the election frustrate
you as you saw that this problem, facing African-American women, was totally ignored during the debates?


EA: The media in general want to simplify things, we get these kind of dichotomies.
This film is specifically about the disproportionate risk that black women
face, but there’s more here. It relates to all women.

SS: The film was originally titled Mehret. Why did you change
it to "All of Us"? How does that parallel journey of the
film?


EA: We had to make sure that audience members didn’t walk away thinking
it wasn’t about them, that it was just about people who were already
at risk. The two patients in the film had faced a lot of abuse and domestic
violence and drug abuse. It was important to us to also look at Mehret’s
personal life, given that she’s Harvard-educated, promoting the film
in a way that demonstrated its universal issues.

SS: What influenced the decision to go to Ethiopia and
look at HIV there as part of the filming?


EA: That was a perk of having Mehret as a subject. She was Ethiopian and
had always returned there, and she has a commitment to doing HIV related
work in Africa. There were real parallels between what’s happening to
women there and here and in the inner city. It’s not the same, but there
were more parellels than you would think.

SS: What was it like working with the women in the film
on a daily basis?

EA: Sometimes it was difficult. I definitely cried a bit and asked a lot
of personal questions. Sometimes they didn’t like that.

SS: You filmed some happy, almost fairy-tale moments,
like Chevelle’s wedding.


EA: It was very important to show both the joy and pain in subjects. Like
Chevelle always says, there is life after HIV. You can live with
the virus, and it’s not necessarily a death sentence.

SS: Since Mehret is training to be a doctor and the film
shows her interacting with her patients, do you think the film might
be used in the medical field?


EA: Yes. We’re doing really well with educational sales, and some of the
institutes that have purchased it are med schools. I definitely think
some people think it should be used in medical school curricula and the like.
It could change the nature of how doctors interact with HIV patients
because it’s different from normal relationships. Doctors know their patients for years and see them
so often.

SS: What will men get out of the film?

EA: One of the main messages of the film is to be sexually responsible.
There are real costs and on the one side you have the abstinence only
movement not explaining things. But on the other side, there’s a difference
between being sexually independent and sexually irresponsible and that’s
an important message for men too. I didn’t get as much access with men
in these women’s lives as I wanted. It speaks to how taboo the subject
is. People aren’t comfortable — it’s challenging to get people
to talk about sex in a real way, not just a sexy fun way.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Pro-Clinton Ads Question Trump’s ‘Respect’ for Women

Ally Boguhn

A CNN/ORC International poll conducted in March found that 74 percent of registered women voters polled viewed Trump “unfavorably.”

This week on the campaign trail, a super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton released an ad attacking Donald Trump’s stance on reproductive rights, and the chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC) offered little more than a shrug when confronted with news that the party’s presumptive standard-bearer had mistreated women.

Pro-Clinton Super PAC Releases Ad Questioning Trump’s “Respect” for Women

Priorities USA Action, a super PAC supporting the Clinton campaign, this week released its first two attack ads targeting Trump, highlighting the candidate’s mistreatment of women and his comments on reproductive rights.

The ads, which have aired in four swing states, “offer scathing critiques of Mr. Trump’s comments about women that will run for the next three weeks in Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Nevada,” reports the New York Times.

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In one of the ads, titled “Respect,” a clip of Trump claiming that “nobody respects women more than Donald Trump” is followed by a series of the Republican candidate’s statements on reproductive health and rights, including his promise to defund Planned Parenthood, and Trump’s suggestion that abortion patients should be “punished” if the procedure is made illegal.

The ad comes as Trump faces renewed controversy over his comments about making abortion punishable. In a New York Times Magazine article published Wednesday, the GOP presidential candidate attempted to spin his prior assertion, this time suggesting that he “didn’t mean punishment for women like prison. I’m saying women punish themselves.”

Trump had claimed that though his “position has not changed” on the issues, doctors providing abortion care “would be held legally responsible, not the woman.”

A CNN/ORC International poll conducted in March found that 74 percent of registered women voters polled viewed Trump “unfavorably.”

Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus Claims “People Just Don’t Care” That Trump Mistreats Women

Priebus, appearing on Fox News Sunday, dismissed the mistreatment of women by his party’s presumptive nominee.

“We’ve been working on this primary for over a year, Chris, and I’ve got to tell you, I think that all these stories that come out and they come out every couple weeks, people just don’t care,” Priebus claimed after host Chris Wallace questioned the GOP party leader about a recent investigation from the New York Times finding that Trump had treated women poorly in his professional and personal life.

Times reporters conducted more than 50 interviews with women who had worked with or come in contact with Trump, revealing “unwelcome romantic advances, unending commentary on the female form, a shrewd reliance on ambitious women, and unsettling workplace conduct” from Trump.

After Priebus attempted to brush off the query by questioning whether people would be surprised that Trump “had girlfriends,” Wallace pressed him to address how the party would respond to the news.

“But, forgive me, it’s not whether or not he had girlfriends, the question is whether or not he mistreated women, whether he made unwanted advances, whether he humiliated women in the workplace,” Wallace countered. “I don’t understand why you say that people don’t care about that, and are you going to look into the allegations?”

“I’m not saying people don’t care about it, I’m just saying I think the reason he’s where he is at is that he represents something much different than the traditional analysis of individual candidates,” Priebus said. “And, yes, everything bothers me, Chris, but I don’t know the truth of these things, I don’t know other than reading an article whether or not these things are true. I think it’s something that Donald Trump is going to have to answer questions in regard to. All I’m saying, though, is, is that after a year of different stories, you know, nothing applies.”

Priebus’ dismissal of Trump’s behavior toward women was a “telling response” that “speaks volumes” about the way the Republican Party treats women, as Rewire editor-in-chief Jodi Jacobson explained.

“The real problem is that it’s the GOP leadership that just doesn’t care,” Jacobson wrote. “The reality is that Trump’s ‘problematic attitude toward women’ is not an isolated problem. For the GOP leadership, it is not a problem at all, but the product of their fundamental policies and positions. The GOP has been waging war on women’s fundamental rights for nearly two decades; it’s just gotten more brash and unapologetic about the attitudes underlying the party’s policies.”

What Else We’re Reading

Ari Rabin-Havt argues in the Huffington Post that Trump’s latest shift on his abortion punishment suggestion “is just borrowing from the playbook” of extremists like Troy Newman, who try to stigmatize abortion care.

“For survivors of abuse like me, Donald Trump’s interview with Megyn Kelly was excruciating,” Emily Crockett writes for Vox.

The Guardian’s Jessica Valenti questions how Trump’s history of mistreating women will impact voters.

Freedom Partners Action Fund, a Koch-backed group, is spending millions on the Ohio Senate race, where Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) is facing off against Democrat Ted Strickland. The Koch groups have backed GOP candidates in other key Senate races, including Nevada, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania, and have reserved $30 million in commercial time for Senate races.

With petitions involving voting restrictions potentially making their way to the Supreme Court by September, the justices could play a crucial role in helping decide the fate of the 2016 elections.

The Huffington Post takes a look inside Planned Parenthood’s $30 million campaign to protect reproductive rights and health this election season.

Connecticut approved a “motor-voter” system that will automatically register eligible voters visiting the Department of Motor Vehicles for driver’s licenses or state-issued ID cards. An estimated 400,000 voters will be added to the state’s rolls, according to ThinkProgress

The Nation’s Ari Berman examines how automatic voter registration in Oregon “is revolutionizing American democracy.”

News Politics

Republican’s ‘Personhood’ Embrace Could Cost GOP Control of Colorado Senate

Jason Salzman

State Sen. Laura Woods was a sponsor of a so-called personhood bill that would give legal rights to a fetus, effectively outlawing abortion in Colorado.

A Colorado state senator, whose re-election race in November will likely determine whether Republicans retain control of the chamber, is sponsoring anti-choice legislation that could very well harm her bid in a swing district, state observers say.

State Sen. Laura Woods (R-Westminster) was a sponsor of a so-called personhood bill that would give legal rights to a fetus. The bill aimed to ban abortion in much the same way as three failed “personhood” ballot initiatives in Colorado would have outlawed it.

The legislation, referred to as the “Protect Life at Conception Act,” was nixed by Democrats in the Colorado house last week.

Woods is also among the sponsors of a bill requiring doctors to offer pregnant patients an ultrasound before they can have an abortion and to wait 24 hours before performing an abortion.

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The bill, which is awaiting committee action and is referred to as “A Woman’s Right to Accurate Health Care Info Act,” ensures “women have the opportunity to see or forego [sic] the opportunity to see the ultrasound.”

Woods sponsored similar so-called personhood and ultrasound bills last year, and both went down in committee.

Colorado has a Democratic governor, and the state house is likely to remain under Democratic control, state observers say. Losing Woods’ state senate seat would leave the GOP a minority in that chamber, with Democrats controlling 18 of 34 seats if Woods can’t secure re-election.[

Professor Robert D. Loevy, professor emeritus of political science at Colorado College, told Rewire that Woods’ anti-choice positions could hurt her in the upcoming general election—if she sticks with them.

“Her anti-abortion actions will make her popular among the Republicans who tend to go to caucuses and vote in primaries and who tend to be very conservative and anti-abortion,” Loevy said. “But when you get to the general election, being anti-abortion can be detrimental to you, particularly in a swing district.”

Woods took strong anti-choice positions during her primary run in 2014, and she has not moved away from them.

During her 2014 primary, Woods shared a Facebook post comparing her Republican opponent, Lang Sias, to Kermit Gosnell, a rogue abortion provider serving a life sentence. Woods apologized for sharing the post.

After defeating Sias, Woods moved on to the general election, where she won her seat by about 650 votes—a 1 percent margin—against then-state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger (D), who is running against Woods again this year.

Woods, during her 2014 general election campaign, didn’t back away from her staunch anti-choice stances, hiring a campaign consultant with ties to Colorado’s failed “personhood” amendments.

Her support of a “personhood” abortion ban on Colorado’s 2014 ballot caused one local libertarian blogger, who normally supports conservative candidates, to write that he would not vote for her.

Asked to comment on whether Woods has backed away from her anti-choice positions during her time in office, Karen Middleton, director of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, points to a Facebook post shared by Woods with the comment “interesting,” two days after three people were killed at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs.

Woods’ post depicted Guy Fawkes, who tried to blow up the House of Lords in England in the name of enhancing religious freedom for Catholics in the 1600s. Under a drawing of Fawkes was the quotation, “The mind of a slave asks is it legal? The mind of a free man asks is it right?” The post has since been deleted.

“Senator Woods has held extreme anti-choice views for a long time, but she really put them into words when she blamed Planned Parenthood for the domestic terrorism attack at the clinic in Colorado Springs,” Middleton told Rewire, referring to the Fawkes post. “Between advocating violence against doctors and patients and her sponsorship of both personhood and mandatory transvaginal ultrasound bills, we’re sure voters will hold her accountable in the next election. As will we.”

Denver Post analysis of her voting record revealed Woods to be one of the eight most conservative lawmakers in the Colorado legislature, despite representing a district that’s evenly divided among Democrats, Republicans, and unaffiliated voters. The Post described the group of eight as “essentially a Colorado version of the congressional ‘Freedom Caucus,’” a group stacked with legislators hostile to abortion rights.

Woods, who used to comment on conservative talk radio under the name “Laura Waters,” did not return a call from Rewire seeking comment on how she thinks her anti-choice stances will be received in her district in November. She told the Denver Post last year that she thinks she’s “representing all Coloradans well.”

“If you’ve looked at my voting record at all, what you will know is I’m an independent thinker,” Woods told Denver Post reporter John Frank in January. “I bucked my leadership, I bucked the party, I bucked the caucus … if it didn’t line up with my principles or my district.”