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Emerson Filmmakers Tell Stories of HIV-Positive Children in China

Zaji Zabalerio '17 found a story they needed to tell.

They wanted to travel to Linfen, China, last spring to document the first graduating class at a high school for HIV-positive teens. But just getting to China—never mind making a film there—is complicated and expensive, and Zabalerio wanted to spend enough time on site to develop relationships with the kids.

Oh, and Zabalerio and their director of photography, Grayson Kohs '17, were busy trying to finish up their senior years, and going through the typically lengthy vetting process to get visas was going to be time consuming.

So Zabalerio and Kohs applied for, and got, $4,000 from the Virgin Unite Social Impact Films Fund at Emerson to help with plane tickets, expedited visas, and other expenses that allowed them to make Children of the Harbor.

“We were really unsure if we were able to go because of mounting costs and all that,” Zabalerio said. “Those funds were really crucial.”

The Virgin Unite Social Impact Fund was formed through a partnership between Emerson College and Virgin Unite, and supports Emerson students in making documentary films that shed light on any one of a number of social issues. The program awards three to five students a total of $10,000 per year to make documentaries in conjunction with a nonprofit or grassroots organization.

Read: Virgin Unite Fund Helps Emerson Students Seek, Tell Truth

Zabalerio and Kohs partnered with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides HIV testing and treatment worldwide, including at the Green Harbor Red Ribbon School in Linfen. The organization was able to help the team with logistics and insurance. Emerson student Lawrence He '18 joined the team from his hometown of Guangzhou to mix and record sound and translate. 

They first learned about the school two years earlier, from a Boston University medical student, Bryan Anker, who was collaborating with Ann Wang, a photojournalist from Myanmar on a project there. Wang is a director on the film, and she and Anker are executive producers.

“When I first saw the footage coming out of there, [I thought] these kids are regular high school kids. They have crushes on each other, they get in fights with each other, they do things regular high school kids do,” Zabalerio said. “You couldn’t tell they were HIV positive.

“[I wondered] why are these kids segregated? Why are these kids put in this position?”

To answer those questions, they decided they needed to spend an extended period of time with the students and “capture a continuous flow” of footage.

Most HIV-positive children in China are able to go to public school—until they’re not, Zabalerio explained.

Because of the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS, if a student is somehow discovered to be HIV positive, oftentimes parents of classmates will complain until the student is kicked out. At that point, it’s difficult to find another public school that will take her in. Some kids in villages have been officially banished by referendum, Zabalerio said they learned.

The Green Harbor Red Ribbon School provides education, support, and treatment to 40 students. Children of the Harbor follows 16 who are about to graduate and go out into a world that may not welcome them wholeheartedly.

Zabalerio is currently at work pre-editing the script so that when they and Kohs sit down with the editor, the process goes as smoothly as possible. They've come to see Children of the Harbor as a “foot in the door” to telling a much larger story.

“The real story we’re interested in is what happens to these kids a year from now or five years from now,” they said. “The [Virgin Unite] funds give us a sense of a lifeline to continue the project and explore our options and get something out there for people to see.

“My goal is for people in China to see this, because that’s where the real change is going to happen.”






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