Interview with Mike Thomas on “Living with the Tiger”

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to watch a moving documentary called “Living With The Tiger”. It is about about Thai kids growing up with the stigma of  being infected with HIV through no fault of their own. Often these kids are abandoned by their own family. For many of them, Baan Gerda became their new home. What this documentary aims to do is to show Thai society that these kids are not dangerous. That they have hopes and dreams just like the rest of us. Hopefully the documentary can get the exposure that it deserves and help, through showings at schools and universities, break down the stigma of HIV/AIDS.

Not long ago I was lucky enough to meet up with film-maker Mike Thomas and I asked him how he came to make this film.

1. How did you first become involved with Baan Gerda?

Actually, it was by accident! An American friend was visiting Thailand to do some research on orphanages for infected children. I spoke to someone I knew in the Thai Red Cross and he recommended Baan Gerda. My friend asked me if I wanted to accompany him on a visit so I decided to go along. I was profoundly moved by what I saw and it was nothing like I expected. These kids were happy and healthy and it was obvious that they were well cared for. I remember feeling a strong sense of injustice that they could be born into this world with a deadly disease through no fault of their own, and then abandoned by society to die. I offered to help out as a volunteer and designed a new website for them.

2. What knowledge did you have of people with HIV before you arrived?

My experience with HIV was limited to what I had learnt over the years through the media. I didn’t know anyone that was infected and that undoubtedly shaped my views. I was cautious when I first met the kids but that changed after just a few hours. I see the same thing regularly with first time visitors to Baan Gerda. They always come away with a different attitude to when they arrived.

3. There are certainly misconceptions about the dangers of being in contact with people with HIV. We saw that in your film. How safe is it really to be with them?

It’s a lot more difficult to get infected than most people realise. You can’t catch it from touching, sharing a glass or a meal, or even kissing. Having an infected person in your home or workplace presents minimal risk. Unfortunately, there are still many people who will avoid any kind of close contact with an infected person and this is why there is so much stigma. The kids in Baan Gerda are very tactile and this helps when there are visitors and they start playing together.

4. In what way did the children and people of Baan Gerda change you personally?

When you put a human face to a disease it changes everything, especially when they are kids and they haven’t done anything wrong. Unfortunately, HIV is often seen as a STD and that always carries with it a certain shame and moral baggage that the person has behaved inappropriately. We need to review our way of thinking because this is not always the case, just as a loyal housewife who has been infected by her husband should not be judged.

5. What was the original intention of doing a documentary film?

In the beginning, we never had a plan to make a documentary film. The first several months I spent filming were to record the music lessons that Bruce Gaston had organised for the children. When he decided to write an opera for them to perform, we started to take it more seriously.

6. How did that change into what we have today?

The turning point was when I found out about Oy’s tragic past, and how he had been abandoned by his uncle and aunt. They sent him to a well known AIDS hospice that did not provide ARV medicine. Obviously they didn’t expect him to survive. Luckily for him he ended up in Baan Gerda which, at the time, was one of only a few places that could provide the medicine he needed.

I asked Lee (the Baan Gerda manager) if she could contact Oy’s uncle and aunt and ask if I could interview them. I didn’t expect them to want to talk about what happened so I was surprised when they agreed. They sounded keen to see Oy so we arranged for him to go there with us. It was the most intensely emotional experience for everyone and many people from the village came to welcome him back. You could see the shock, disbelief, regret and joy in people’s faces. Only a small part of what I filmed that weekend made it into the documentary but I think it conveys the depth of feeling that was apparent. I knew we had something incredibly powerful and that’s when we decided to make a film to show the stigma and discrimination that affects these children and others like them.

7. Did you have sponsors right from the start? The equipment needed, for example, must have been expensive

We had very little money to make the film and mostly relied on the good will of other people. Film crews are normally hired for a specific amount of time to do a job, but the fact that this was filmed over nearly 3 years would have made it prohibitively expensive. I hadn’t intended on volunteering full time but the more things progressed, the more I realised how important it was to bring this story to the attention of others.

We were very lucky to meet a guy called Alec Ceschi after he made a visit to Baan Gerda. He was interested in sponsoring one of the children and then I found out he has video production and post production studios in London. He has been incredibly supportive and helped us in many ways. I think it was fate that we met.

8. The film centers on two of the boys. Was that the original intention?

The focus on Bla and Oy was mainly because they had the lead roles in Bruce’s opera at the time. It obviously meant that I had lots of footage of them so they became our lead characters when we became more serious about making the film.  It wasn’t for any other reason. In fact, there are 83 other children in Baan Gerda and they all have heart wrenching stories.

9. When we photograph or film Thai youngsters they like to play up to the camera or strike poses. How long before you got beyond that?

I think the kids just got bored of it after a while because I was always filming. After a while, they stopped noticing me and their behaviour became more natural. At this point, I was able to follow them around and go into their homes and record some very personal and touching moments. For me, the interaction amongst the children and the support they show for each other is very noticeable. I wanted to be able to capture and portray this in the film for others to see.

10. How did you get the kids to open up to you and sound so natural on film?

This was undoubtedly the hardest and most important part of the film. I always thought that the story should be told by the children as much as possible, rather than adults who often think they know better. I never imagined that Bla would open himself up in the way that he did. It took a long time to get to that point where there was trust and a strong bond between us.

It was really difficult at the start because whenever I tried to interview one of the kids they would just clam up and give 1 word answers. In the end, I found that by engaging them in an activity that they liked, preferably with a friend, they would start to relax. I used a small radio mic that was clipped to their shirt which they soon forgot about, and positioned the camera as far back as possible. It felt less of an interview and more of a friendly chat whilst they had the distraction of another activity.

When Nis (my assistant) started working with us, I asked him to spend time getting to know Bla socially. They both like to play the guitar and Nis used to be in a band so I suggested they jam together. Later that day when I was walking to the dining hall, I saw both of them playing a song with several of the smaller kids watching on. What was surprising was that Bla was singing confidently – a feat that Bruce had been unable to achieve after months of trying. I’d never seen Bla so animated and happy. Nis had made a deep connection with him and I knew that this was going to be significant for the interviews.

They were just about to have lunch so I ran back to my room to fetch the camera and managed to film the last part of them playing. It’s such a beautiful moment. Cindy (our editor) also thought it was strong so we decided to put it into the film.

People who know Bla have a new-found respect for him after seeing the film. He talks about the problems he faces with a courage and dignity that is beyond most of us.

11. Were there other worthwhile stories from the kids that never made it to the film due to time restraints?

There was heaps that had to be cut! When Cindy edited the rough cut, it was more than three and half hours long and I had no idea how we were going to lose over half of that. We could easily have made a film solely on Oy or Bla or the opera. It was a big challenge to weave together so many different elements into a cohesive story. In fact, Oy’s backstory is only half told. He actually has a brother who lives with another aunt and she refused to let them meet. She told the brother that Oy had died already. Oy’s mother was also forbidden to visit him as she had legally adopted him. When she was sick she made one last effort to see her son. she never made it – she became very iill on the journey and was hospitalised and died soon after.

12. What ratio of shot and used footage in the film?

I shot about 180 hours of footage in total and the film is 84 mins long.

13. Any plans for putting outakes on the website or showing in a different form.

I definitely want to make more of the footage available because people have been asking to see it. I’ve edited several short features on Bla, Oy, Baan Gerda and stigma that are part of an educational DVD set for schools. There is also an exclusive video of the kids playing for the prime minister which you can watch by ‘liking’ our Facebook page. Hopefully, I’ll be able to post more on the website in the future.

14. Will you be doing a follow-up to show the situation of the kids now and in the coming years?

We did talk about doing a follow-up to show where the children are, in say 5 years time. The biggest problem would be finance and I certainly couldn’t afford to repeat  this process again! It’s a huge undertaking and even with a few sponsors onboard, it doesn’t cover all of the costs. Maybe someone will commission a follow-up…

15. What are your plans for Living with Tiger for this year? (festivals, private screenings etc.)

Starting from December, we will be touring the country and taking the film to schools and universities. We feel that the film is especially important to students because HIV infection rates are increasing in the younger age groups. We had a recent screening at Prince of Songkla University (Phuket), and more than 90% of the 323 students surveyed said they had learnt something about HIV. More importantly, nearly 80% said they are more likely to interact with someone infected after having watched the film.

Despite the impact it is having, we are struggling to persuade state schools to show the film. The reaction from a lot of Thai teachers is disappointing and it’s clear that they don’t know how to deal with the issue of HIV. It’s easier just to ignore it. This is frustrating because I feel they have a duty to educate and protect their students. We had a much easier time of organising school screenings last month when we took the film to Singapore. Early next year, we are planning for a trip to Hong Kong. After that, who knows!

For more information, please visit their website at www.livingwiththetiger.com or become friends with them on Facebook. If you cannot make it to a screening, it is possible to buy a copy of the DVD on their website.

3 responses to “Interview with Mike Thomas on “Living with the Tiger”

  1. Thomas shows that he still carries his own prejudices about HIV in his comments about judging those who have it. He says putting a human face to the disease changes everything because the kids ‘haven’t done anything wrong’ and thats true of course. But having sex and catching HIV also isnt ‘doing anything wrong’. Even if a person has unprotected unamarried sex, there is nothing morally wrong. It might be foolish, but the idea of deserving or not deserving to catch a disease exposes a morally tinted attitude. Not just the unknowing housewife, but anybody with HIV should not be judged for having an illness. Only getting away from the idea that an illness says something about who we are, will send us on the road towards helping overcome the stigma and therefore improving education for health.

  2. I think it says more about your own morals than anyone else’s, Mandy. There are plenty of people who think that unprotected sex outside of marriage is morally wrong. You may disagree with religious beliefs, but that’s how it is for many. People often associate HIV with promiscuous behaviour. Not everyone has the same liberated attitude towards sex as you do.

  3. Mary @ Green Global Travel

    Sounds like a moving documentary. How sad those kids are put in orphanages just because they have HIV.