“The Heart of the Matter,” the first documentary to examine the complex issue of AIDS among women, makes a significant contribution to the growing body of films about the lethal disease. Docu’s structure is a bit amorphous, but the central interviewee, Janice Jirau, is so charismatic and so honest about her struggle with AIDS that she makes this work a must-see for all interested viewers, particularly younger women.
Producer/directors Gini Reticker and Amber Hollibaugh have selected an interesting cross-section of women (blacks, lesbians, housewives) who talk most candidly about the implications of being afflicted with AIDS, and specifically about the myths surrounding the virus. Influenced by irresponsible articles in popular magazines, initially most of these women innocently felt they were outside the high-risk categories.
Ultimately, what makes the film emotionally affecting is its detailed case study of one woman as she goes through the phases, from being diagnosed HIV-positive to her death, just months before the docu was completed. Jirau relates how, as a loyal, obedient wife, she consented to her husband’s wish not to use condoms, even after he was treated for AIDS at a hospital. “I loved my husband,” she says, “and felt that I needed to prove that, so whatever he needed I gave him.”
After his death, however, Jirau’s consciousness was raised and she became politically active, recruiting the support of her extended family, challenging outdated religious preaching and right-wing myths, lecturing to female groups and testifying in Washington before the Federal AIDS Commission.
Jirau’s story is interspersed with comments by a half-dozen women about their experiences, an approach that tends to diffuse the emotional impact of the central story. Still, framing the personal interviews with vital, if gloomy, statistics that AIDS is now the top killer of young black women and that it’s one of the leading causes of death for all women between 18 and 44 makes this film extremely relevant, even urgent.
Winning the Sundance Film Festival’s Freedom of Expression Award, “The Heart of the Matter” is an uplifting documentary that could not have made a stronger case for its motto: “We’re in a race between education and catastrophe.”