Review: ‘Living with the Tiger’

Review: ‘Living with the Tiger’

A bitter-sweet documentary about HIV-infected orphans in Lopburi chips away at the social stigma associated with the virus in Thailand

One of the things that struck me most about "Living with the Tiger" was the realization I have never laughed so much while watching a documentary about children living with HIV/AIDS.

That’s not meant to sound callous. It’s just that the film features many genuinely funny moments. And by showing the HIV-infected orphans from the Baan Gerda community in Lopburi as normal children, "Living with the Tiger" starts to chip away at the enemy in its sights -- the social stigma associated with the virus in Thailand.

Over the course of three years, the children are shown going about their daily lives: generally horsing around and acting like monkeys. After all, that’s what kids do best.

While the reality of HIV/AIDS is never far away -– the medical regimen, the ingesting of myriad pills and so on -- it forms a background to their lives rather than becoming the defining feature of it.

Given the subject matter, there are more than a few serious scenes and the film doesn’t pull any punches in terms of painting a very clear picture of the desperate tragedy that masks these children’s lives: tragic not because of their infection, but because of the abandonment and ostracism that results.

That the children appear so resilient, both physically and mentally, is a testament to the efforts made by Baan Gerda and its community of carers and foster parents. By providing the orphans with love, friendship and respect, they have helped rebuild the children’s confidence to a point where they can stand proud without being dragged down by the shame associated with their illness.

This is a substantial achievement, given that the 85 or so children living at the hospice have been abandoned by their own families and shunned by their communities.

Uncles and aunts have turned their backs on babies and schools have refused to teach six-year-olds because they are infected with a virus that was passed onto them in the womb.

Even finding a place in care homes is torturously difficult given that social safety nets in Thailand are often so moth-eaten they offer little if no tangible support.

Vox pops and interviews with Thais lay bare the harsh social attitudes that anyone infected with HIV faces. All too often, they internalize the shame and pain.

As one child points out, there is a prevailing local belief that people living with HIV/AIDS, including orphans, are paying a karmic debt for sins they committed in their past lives.

A tribute to the children’s indefatigable spirit

The backbone of the documentary, and the element that gives it its name, centers on their training and performance of an opera based on Yan Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel "The Life of Pi." 

Living with the TigerDVD cover for "Living with the Tiger," a documentary about a stigmatised group of Thai orphans and their fight to be accepted by society. Written by U.S. musician Bruce Gaston, who has lived in Thailand for four decades, the opera is an allegory for the tiger in the children’s own lives.

Your heart also goes out to Gaston and the team tasked with schooling the children in the arts of acting and music –- a job that on more than one occasion seems to be more difficult than herding cats with ADHD. But the end results pays off.

The children struggle through, and two of the orphans -- in part thanks to the confidence they have gained in the process -- make the decision to visit their respective families for the first time in several years. This has mixed results, so if you want to know how it pans out then watch the film.

While the care the orphans receive at Baan Gerda is unusual, there are only a limited number of similar privately funded projects around the country; the treatment meted out to people living with Aids is not.

"Living with the Tiger" plays an essential role in helping to educate people what being infected with HIV actually means and how to mitigate any risks associated with it in society. The film is a tribute to the children’s indefatigable spirit to keep fighting against their illness and the social ignorance related to it.

But it can only maximize its impact if people see it. The AIDS orphans face a problem of social stigma. The film lacks distribution.

Often people ask what they can do to support projects such as these. In this case it’s really quite simple. First, watch the film. Then spread the word.

You can share its Facebook page. Help organize screenings at your local pubs, clubs and schools. Sponsorship and publicity is required to take it on a global tour. And if you can think of nothing else, then donate some cash.

The social stigma faced by people living with HIV/AIDS is a global phenomenon. But this hugely empowering and uplifting documentary can help dispel some of the common myths so that we as a society can progress in the way we treat people who are infected with the virus.

All it needs is a little help.

Greg arrived in Thailand on his mountain bike in 2001 after cycling around Mongolia, Tibet and Nepal. After working as a journalist for more than a decade in Britain and Thailand, he recently segued over to the world of corporate communications. His website is thegreglowe.com

 

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