By Jenny Stein
In 2005, Hofstra University alum and AIDS activist, Stacy Friedman, and 15 others took a trip to Southeast Asia that helped define their lives and provide a better understanding of a recognized global epidemic.
Six years ago she started volunteering at an AIDS hospice in Harlem, N.Y. There, she leads a group of volunteers while doing local outreach. “Now that I have been volunteering at the AIDS Hospice for so long, and spent so much time with those infected, I feel like I’ve put a face to the disease,” she says. “And now there’s no turning back.”
She balances her hospice work with her full-time job at the Oxygen Network as a production manager for the on-air promos team. Although Stacy Friedman, 32, has been volunteering for a variety of AIDS related projects since high school, it was only after 9/11 that her dedication to the cause gained definition. Her devotion inspired close friend and co-worker, Chelsea Tillett, to join the cause as well. “I was blown away at how committed she was to raising awareness about AIDS,” Tillet, 29,says.
In 2005, Tillet heard of an event called TrekAsia, an adventure challenge in Vietnam that raises money for AIDS research. TrekAsia requires each volunteer to raise $10,000 to participate. All funds go to support HIV programs in Asia. The adventure challenge consists of kayaking in Halong Bay, trekking through the Mai Chau Valley and sleeping in local tribal villages.
“As soon as as I heard of TrekAsia, I knew we had to be a part of it,” says Tillett. Given Friedman’s background in TV/film production at Hofstra University and Tillett’s experience and passion for documentaries, she suggested they make a documentary feature on the experience, which would later be known as Leaving Mai Chau.
“When we told people what we were doing, their first question was always ‘Why Vietnam?’” says Friedman. “No one seems to know that there is an epidemic brewing over there, as all of the press is always about Africa.” The trip consisted of 16 volunteers, all having been touched in some way by AIDS.
Tillett and Friedman formed their own production company, worldFrame Productions, in March 2005 so they could film the documentary and the 14 volunteers agreed to be filmed. “They all believed in the story we are trying to tell,” says Friedman. “Just by participating in the trip, we knew that they had the same vision of publicizing the AIDS epidemic as we did.” Some volunteers used the documentary to tell their own stories. One woman, who has been HIV positive for years, is using the opportunity as a platform to come out about her illness.
The expedition through the Mai Chau Valley was tough. “It was over 100 degrees, with 100 percent humidity, and the cicadas were out in full force,” says Friedman. The challenge was more physically strenuous than any of the volunteers had expected. Friedman, who suffers from an ailing knee and asthma, struggled to climb mountains in the extreme heat. “Thank God for Chelsea,” says Friedman, “because she was able to keep shooting while I was struggling just to make it through the day.”
However, most of the time, two cameras were rolling as the filmmakers tried to capture everything that was going on; from the fighting, tears and injuries to the excitement, camaraderie and sharing homemade wine with the locals. “The [first] trip definitely was more about the actual adventure challenge, and seeing these people wildly out of their element,” Friedman says.
The experience was very draining for the two women. “It’s a great way to test yourself, and learn what you are capable of,” Friedman says. Tillett said the process was both humbling and inspiring. “On a daily basis we are working to create a film that will motivate our audience to promote change and education about the global epidemic of AIDS,” she said.
The two now hope to get their film onto in New York film circuit. Their ultimate goal is to take the film worldwide in order to reach the largest audience possible to promote the funding. “This funding can literally save lives, we saw it in action,” Tillett says.
Their goal with Leaving Mai Chau is to inform and educate those who are unaware of Vietnam’s struggle with AIDS.