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'Changing the Rules' on AIDS Education

November 06, 1987|CLARKE TAYLOR

NEW YORK — Two years after forming a production company aimed at fighting the AIDS epidemic with educational films for television, a group of film makers here reports that they've been battling uphill to accomplish their goal.

The first film to result from their efforts is "AIDS: Changing the Rules," a 26-minute documentary featuring Ron Reagan, the President's son, salsa star Ruben Blades and model Beverly Johnson, in a frank and graphic discussion of safer sex practices. It airs tonight at 10 on Channels 28 and 15 and at 11 on Channel 24.

The founders of the 2-year-old production company, AIDSFILMS, say that the film and a series of related, 30-second public-service messages were first rejected by the three major television networks and the independent Fox Broadcasting Co. And although plans call for the documentary to be made available to educational institutions at a minimal cost, they say there are very limited funds for wider distribution, and no funds to distribute the public-service spots to local community groups or television stations around the country.

Even PBS accepted the documentary, which starts off stating that it is aimed at heterosexuals, with the proviso that it be accompanied by a PBS-produced, half-hour discussion of issues raised in the film by a three-member panel that includes Dr. Helen Singer Kaplan, a sex therapist who is widely considered by homosexuals to be strongly anti-gay in her views, and who challenges the efficacious use of condoms that is promoted in the film.

"It's been frustrating," said John Hoffman, a producer who recently left a position at Children's Television Workshop to devote full-time to AIDSFILMS. "We perceived there was a crying need for AIDS information, but we have found very little money or real conviction. We're grateful to PBS, but the reality is, we'll reach a much smaller audience than we initially intended."

There have been numerous programs and public-service messages dealing with AIDS on both the major networks and cable TV. However, when it comes to programs about the ways to prevent the spread of AIDS, the approach generally has been to tell rather than to show audiences what they need to know. Although sexual intercourse and the sharing of needles among i.v. drug users are the two most common means of transmitting the AIDS virus, instructions on the proper use of condoms and on the safe use of clean needles, such as those provided in tonight's program, have been in short supply in the media.

Hoffman and the skeleton staff of four who operate the sparsely furnished, mid-Manhattan AIDSFILMS office believe there is "a crying need" for more explicit, informational programming.

In "AIDS: Changing the Rules," Reagan, Johnson and Blades all discuss sexual practices directly. Johnson discusses oral sex, and Blades carefully places a condom on a banana.

In one of the group's 30-second spots, Blades urges safer i.v. drug use by warning against the sharing of needles. In another spot, which Hoffman said Reagan suggested and wrote, the President's son simply addresses the camera and criticizes the U.S. government for "not doing enough about AIDS," then urges viewers to "write to your congressmen--or someone higher up."

"What we need in the short term are prime-time PSAs (public service announcements) like these, that tell people what to do to prevent the spread of AIDS and that call them to action," Hoffman said.

He said that he and his AIDSFILMS co-founder and co-producer Franklin Getchell initially intended to complete three films, rather than one, over the last two years. He said proposals for two other films, both aimed at the homosexual community that has been hard-hit by AIDS, "were greeted with silence. But after we reassessed the needs, and found that the heterosexual community needed to be addressed, we suddenly found the money."

Hoffman said that he and Getchell were first stirred to action by the AIDS-related deaths of friends and decided they could use their production talents to try to reach and educate a mass audience. As a co-producer, they enlisted New York-based psychologist Susan Tross, who specializes in the psychological impact of AIDS on gay men and in AIDS risk-reduction. The three formed AIDSFILMS "to stop the spread of AIDS, to increase understanding of the disease and to foster compassion toward those who have it."

However, despite the formation of a board of advisers consisting of prominent persons in the AIDS battle, their cause fell on deaf ears "both in the gay or straight communities," according to Hoffman.

Hoffman said it was a much-publicized, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater benefit held here last year that gave momentum to fund-raising efforts. The efforts coincided with announced plans to aim the initial projects toward heterosexuals, he said, and $250,000 has been raised for operating, production and distribution expenses.

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