Compassion for addicts

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A young woman becomes an activist filmmaker after experiencing the reality of drugs and HIV in the northwestern mountains of Vietnam


30-year-old Thi, who has been drug addict for over 10 years and now HIV patient, said he felt scary when seeing his drug injection scene in the film

Tran Phuong Thao learned quickly that the drug addiction plaguing Dien Bien Province, and the area's resulting sky-high HIV rates, were not due to "social ills," but were instead the consequences of a disease diagnosable and treatable like any other: addiction.

While helping a Dutch NGO survey people living with HIV in the province, which has Vietnam's highest number of HIV patients (attributable to its severe heroin addiction rate), Thao saw the problem's human side.

She came face to face with lives of the people who live and breathe the experiences of drug addiction and HIV infection. She knew that their stories weren't being told truthfully by the media, which often vilifies drug addicts as dangerous criminals from which the public must be protected, leading to the dehumanization, victimization and isolation of people suffering from drug problems.

The experience of interviewing HIV patients most of whom were drug addicts who acquired the disease via dirty needles and can't afford treatment prompted Thao and her husband, French documentary filmmaker Swann Dubus, to make the 80-minute-documentary Trong hay ngoai tay em (With or Without Me.)

"With or Without Me" was made in 2011with the support of Medical Committee Netherlands Vietnam (MCNV), which was the organization Thao had been surveying for when she first visited Dien Bien. The filmmakers want to release it at cinemas nationwide, but that is a long way off as no documentary has ever been given wide-release in Vietnam, though "With or Without Me" has been screened at film festivals in Germany and Italy.

The documentary focuses on the lives of Trung and Thi, two of many young HIV-infected men living the consequences of drug addiction in Vietnam's far northwest region, part of the "Golden Triangle" at the heart of the world's heroin trade and on the main drug trafficking route from Laos to China.

The film goes un-narrated, so it is the characters who tell their own stories.

"We want to give a distinctive reality, not a shocking depiction, via the drug users' paths to getting straight," Thao, who got her BA in Vietnam and earned an MA in Documentary Directing from France's Université de Poitiers, told Vietweek.


Female documentary filmmaker Tran Phuong Thao came face to face with lives of the people who live and breathe the experiences of drug addiction and HIV infection in her documentary entitled Trong hay ngoai tay em (With or Without Me)

"Their stories give us the profound truth of how their habit destroys their hopes and dreams, instead of just providing more social bias. These are their lives, extremely intimidating ones, not scenes with actors."

La, Thi's wife, told Tuoi Tre in tears that the film was spot on in depicting her life and the lives of those around her.

Thao said the film had a meaningful impact on its subjects' lives.

While the film was still being made, Thi was still on drugs, but he is now off heroin and is undergoing methadone treatment to end his addiction.

He is also working as a peer-to-peer educator, helping others in the position he was once in steer their lives away from drugs.

Thao said the film's title comes from the choice La gave Thi before agreeing to participate in the film he could either go with her (and without drugs) or without her (and with drugs).

"They [Thi and La] encourage each other well as both of them understand the disease, and they have friends who share the same plight," said Thao.

Trung, who was suicidal and hopeless when Thao began shooting the film, has since changed his mind. He said he is now willing to undergo drug rehabilitation too, though he is on a waiting list for treatment.

However, Trung said drug addiction still haunts their lives as "drug dealers can be found anywhere."

Support and understanding

Trung and Thi both said it was the experience and understanding Thao had gained working with HIV patients that enabled them to trust her enough to be filmed for the documentary.

Trung put up a lot of resistance at first. He said he wanted to die because his father, the only person who never abandoned him during his ten-year battle with drugs, was dead. Thao said that he could barely express himself or garner the will to share at first, but once she began filming, he opened up completely.

Thi and Trung, both born in 1982, started taking heroin in their teens, a development all too common in Dien Bien.

La, Thi's wife, said that as a girl she was afraid of the local addicts she saw hanging around everywhere. But somewhere along the way that changed, easily and naturally, she said.

The film shows relatives pleading desperately to get their addicted family members off drugs. In a few cases, wives convinced their husbands to quit. Ironically, especially given the film's title, La cannot stop using even though she was able to convince Thi to quit.

However, Thao said that La is one of the luckiest HIV-infected women in the region, as her family hasn't completely abandoned her and she still has her mother's support a fact not depicted in the film.

"Other women are lonely in their fight against not only the illness but the isolation," said Thao.

But the film also shows the help that is available, like the peer-to-peer volunteer group Hoa Huong Duong (Sunflower), which provides medicine to HIV-infected people and spreads awareness of new information and government policy on HIV/AIDS and drugs. Many Hoa Huong Duong members travel to addicts' and patients' homes to take care of them and provide practical advice.

The Dien Bien provincial authorities have attempted to tackle the issue by collaborating with NGOs to provide free medicine and methadone treatment.

"I do not intend to evaluate the policy, but in my opinion, the detoxification center seems not to be an effective way," said Thao.

"First, almost all the patients who have been treated in those centers suffer a relapse. Secondly, many of them have HIV and the centers' conditions do not allow them to have thorough medical care for the disease," she said.

"Trung, my character, said that he cannot live longer than two years as he is at the full-blown AIDS stage. But he is still on the waiting list for treatment after two months. Is there any chance for him before he throws himself back into a life of crime?"

Though Thao succeeded in changing Trung's mind, she said that she does not have any "special talent."

"It is documentary making that inspires me to discover unique material," she said. "It is not showbiz"¦ the most difficult problem is that hardly anyone wants to become a producer for documentary films in Vietnam since they earn almost no profit."

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