After working for New York City's Public Health Department from 1986 to1999 and teaching a course in the epidemiology of HIV/AIDS at Columbia University it became clear to Mary-Ann Chiasson that something more must be done.
It was during this time that Chiasson linked up with her friend and neighbor, Francine Suchat Shaw, an Associate Professor of Educational Communication and Technology at NYU to see what they could do about informing the public that HIV is still a big deal and inspire gay men to use critical thinking.
With Chiasson's background and expertise in public health and HIV/AIDS and Suchat Shaw's career in Educational Communication and Technology the two used their knowledge alongside the latest health statistics and began writing a script with the goal of creating a film and using the internet as the medium for getting their message out.
The result is HIVBigDeal.org, a site that offers an string of short video dramas aiming to realistically address the social and health-related dilemmas gay men face.
Each segment is directed by filmmaker Todd Ahlberg who is known for producing the documentary, Meth, the hard-hitting and definitive story on the gay Meth epidemic and Hooked, a film which explores the role of online cruising and casual sex.
Click HIVBigDeal.Org to watch the first two episodes entitled "The Morning After" and "The Test."
As experts in their field Chiasson and Suchat Shaw tested the effectiveness of their spots by developing a survey for sexually active gay men to answer before and after seeing the film.
The duo reached out to Manhunt.net, America's biggest online gay meeting and cruising site and asked if the company would help in their cause. Manhunt agreed by including the survey on the exit page of their website. And just like that Chiasson and Shuchat Shaw were able to get the answers they were looking to see.
I had a chance to talk with writer Mary Ann Chiasson and director Todd Ahlberg and ask them questions about their short films:
EL: What was the motivation for this media to be made?
MAC: We knew something had to be done. We didn't know what to do. I knew Francine from my building and we ended up having dinner together. We were talking about what each of us did and I said I've been looking for someone involved in e-media. It was purely happenstance and after my experience seeing Hooked it was clear that movies, documentaries can have a profound affect on causing people to think critically. The whole purpose is to inspire critical thinking about HIV, not to tell people what to do but to have people think for themselves about what to do. We spent a lot of time doing focus groups and worked really hard on the script.
EL: What research did you need to serve for the basis of your script?
MAC: We enrolled 1000 men from the exit page of Manhunt.net. We recruited them into a study and completed a baseline survey. We had no idea people would watch the movie and didn't know what was going to happen. The 1000 men answered the baseline survey and what they thought about the video. Of the 1000 men who originally signed on, 54% returned to complete the same study after a three month period. What we found is that after seeing the film, men were three times more likely to disclose their status and men were 1.5 times more likely to get tested. Half the men answered they had similar experiences to the characters in our short films. This is good since most infections are happening with men who don't know their status or are newly infected.
EL: Todd Ahlberg, you made a hard-hitting documentary on the gay meth epidemic. Why didn't you go back to your hard-hitting or reality-based roots in approaching this project?
TA: Well, I think the way I was looking at it was much more slice of life. It's going to pale in flavor when you put it next to meth. The whole meth world is on the other extreme.
The PSA's- they're more- this could happen to any gay guy. That was my take on how we should approach it. The people who are coming to these sites and videos are people who have come across HIV but might not be as informed. It just has a different purpose. The script calls for a more everyday approach.
MAC: We didn't want it to be too much like an after school special, although people have accused us as that, but it was deliberately meant to be ambiguous. The goal is for people to think about and know their status and the only way to be sure of it is to get tested.
EL: Where can viewers find the site and how can they keep updated on the character's story?
TA: "The 1st two are up and running the 3rd will be up in August."