The Heart of the Matter (1994)
(54min) 16mm, color, sound
Directors: Gini Reticker, Amber Hollibaugh; Cinematographers, Ellen Kuras and Maryse Alberti, Editor, Ann Collins; Sound Recordist, Pamela Yates
Grant Awarded to Gini Reticker
Archive: UCLA Film & Television Archive
Shattering widespread denial surrounding women and AIDS, this groundbreaking
documentary follows Janice Jirau’s deeply moving journey while she reckons with events in her life. A chorus of HIV+ women masterfully weaves a collective narrative illuminating how race, gender, class and religious prejudice play critical roles in putting women at risk.
The Heart of the Matter revolves around the compelling journey of Janice Jirau, who captivates viewers with her honesty about her struggle with AIDS. The film intimately follows Jirau from her HIV-positive diagnosis to her untimely death. Along the path, Janice undergoes a transformative experience as a political activist, becoming a renown guest speaker, eventually sharing the platform with Magic Johnson. In one riveting scene, Jirau delivers a powerful speech to a New Orleans congregation, highlighting the critical role of faith in her journey and challenging the church to do better. The strength of Jirau’s family in caring for her along the way forms a recurring touchstone in the film. Broadening out from the specifics of Jira’s individual story, the film also features a Greek chorus comprised of a diverse group of HIV+ women who openly discuss the implications of living with AIDS and debunk common misconceptions surrounding the virus.
This first feature length documentary to frame AIDS as a feminist issue shattered the prevailing notion that only certain kinds of women were susceptible to HIV – or in the bluntly dismissive words of one prominent science reporter at the time “only drug addicts and whores get AIDS.” This pervasive attitude was seeped in deeply entrenched racism and misogyny and further marginalized Black women who were being disproportionately impacted by the epidemic. To combat this narrative, directors Amber Hollibaugh and Gini Reticker assembled a stellar team of emerging talent including cinematographers Ellen Kuras and Maryse Alberti, editor Ann Collins and sound recordist Pamela Yates. Their collaboration was critical. Filming in 16mm over a period of three years with our all-female crew, we intimately captured the journey of AIDS activist Janice Jirau from her initial diagnosis through the end of her life. To avoid marginalizing Janice’s story, we incorporated a Greek chorus of diverse HIV+ women. Together, their perspectives wove a collective narrative illustrating the complex intersection of race, class, gender and religious prejudice that put women at risk. To create and immediate sense of engagement from the viewers, we opened the film with a risk assessment session with a live audience, organically prompting viewers to assess their own behaviors. At its 1994 Sundance premiere, the film immediately stood out as a groundbreaking documentary, receiving a grand jury prize nomination and the prestigious Freedom of Expression Award. Through our partnership with Ellen Schneider at POV and the Ford Foundation we launched a grassroots impact campaign that utilized the film’s broadcast to empower AIDS activists nationwide, leading to transformative policy changes and saved lives. Our campaign’s success became a model for other advocacy efforts, chronicled in the bookmaking Media Matter.
Gini Reticker is an Academy Award nominated and Emmy Award winning documentary film director and producer. A five-time Sundance alum known as a feminist filmmaker, Reticker co-founded Fork Films with Abigail Disney.
Amber Hollibaugh documentary director and producer, and renown feminist writer and activist. Formerly Director of Education for the New York City Commission on Human Rights, AIDS Division she spent seven years at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) as Founding Director of the Lesbian AIDS Project. She is a Senior Activist Fellow Barnard and long-term collaborator with the Barnard Center for Research on Women, and a recipient of the Dr. Susan B. Love Award for Outstanding Achievement in Women’s Health.
Ellen Kuras is known for her visually stunning camera work in both fiction and documentary. As a director, she has garnered an Academy Award nomination and Emmy Award and helmed numerous episodic series. She is currently in post-production directing Lee, starring Kate Winslet.
Maryse Alberti is an award-winning cinematographer whose distinctive visual style has contributed to her being an influential DP in both the world of fiction and documentary. She has won the Cinematography Award at Sundance and taken home two Independent Spirit Awards. Ann Collins is a documentary editor whose work has premiered at Sundance, the New York Film Festival, the Berlin Film Festival and has been nominated for an Academy Award. Collins has also lectured at the School of Visual Arts and NYU. Pamela Yates is prominent documentary producer and director and Co-founder and Creative Director of Skylight Pictures. Yates is a Guggenheim Fellow, a member of the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences, Writers Guild of America and the International Documentary Association.