Steps project: A staircase to enlightenment

09 September 2002
A TEAM of researchers at UCT is conducting a groundbreaking impact study that will examine the media's relationship with HIV/AIDS education.

The research involves screening several documentary films dealing with HIV/AIDS in three southern African countries and examining the impact they have on those communities.

The documentaries were produced and funded by the Steps for the Future programme, the largest documentary film project ever to be undertaken in Africa.

These 35 films, varying in length from five to 75 minutes, have been broadcast in more than 20 countries internationally and were recently screened on SABC 1.

The project is co-ordinated and managed by South African filmmaker Don Edkins, who raised R22-million for the training of filmmakers, the productions of the films, and the outreach programme.

The organisation's objective is to enable HIV-positive people to be heard throughout the country and the world, and so reach out to those who are most affected or at risk from HIV/AIDS.

According to the filmmakers the stories are all strong, personal narratives, that do not attempt to preach, teach or paint horror scenarios. Instead they offer hope, inspiration, compassion, understanding and insight.

The impact study, headed by Dr Susan Levine from the Department of Social Anthropology, has so far collected data from Ocean View, Nyanga and Zwelethemba townships, and UCT.

"Our aim is to reach people in rural and urban communities who have little or no access to formal broadcast media with portable video cinema mobiles.

The benefit of these screenings is that participants are able to raise concerns about HIV/AIDS with a facilitator present. UCT students assisting with the project record these conversations and select individuals from the focus groups to do more in-depth research about the after life of the films.

"We want to know if, and how, the films are being discussed at a household level. Ultimately we would like to know whether they change people's perceptions of the HIV/AIDS pandemic," she explains.

Levine says that the films have not only sparked interesting discussions and debates that have produced valuable insight into people's perceptions and prejudices about HIV/AIDS, but also around the media's anti-AIDS campaign.

"Sometimes the message is misinterpreted or misunderstood by its intended audience simply because of the way it is presented."

Working alongside Levine is facilitator Alosha Ray and 15 anthropology students, from the Media and Society and Medical Anthropology courses.

"We are taking the students out to learn ethnographic field methods. We want them to engage with the media and pedagogies as well as AIDS activism and research.

"The work being done is language specific, which gives Afrikaans and Xhosa speakers the opportunity to conduct field work in their first language. Unfortunately, English speakers are at a disadvantage but they watch and are still learning, and hopefully this has given them an incentive to learn languages, which is great," she says.

"We also have graduate students doing analytical work and honours students doing literature reviews."

According to Levine, though there is quite a lot of anthropological research on how people watch television, there are few in-depth, on-the-ground studies that deal with how media messages are interpreted by audiences.

For more information on this documentary film project, contact Susan Levine at

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