UK unPrEPared is Souleyman Messalti’s new short documentary on the availability of PrEP in the UK. Team PrEPster was honoured to catch up with Souleyman to ask him about the reasons behind the film and his own thoughts on PrEP in England and beyond.
The film is available to view here.
What inspired you to make the film?
I was travelling in the US in 2012. I was visiting a good friend of mine who told me about a new preventive drug that had just been made available in the US and that would protect people from getting HIV; PrEP. Once back in the UK, I started researching PrEP and followed a lot of different trials. I found out that it does indeed work effectively and yet, the general public was relatively unaware of its existence – and also that it wasn’t available here. I started talking to a lot of different organisations, activists, doctors, researchers and trial participants this year and decided to make this documentary and feature the people I’d been speaking with for a while.
Do you see your film-making as being part of a political movement or process – either about PrEP access or about sexual health more generally?
I’d like to think so. Most of my work has been focused on challenging stereotypes, stigmatisation and misconceptions, especially when it comes to so-called subcultures. I’m always hoping to open a dialogue between people by making films – if people talk about an issue, be it in a negative or positive way, they open up a discussion. I believe that dialogue is the first step leading to change in society.
Your film starts with an ACT UP demonstration outside 56 Dean Street in London. Until recently, Act Up hasn’t been out on the streets of London for almost twenty years. What have you observed about the renaissance of HIV activism?
Aids Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) placed HIV on the political agenda at a time where it was the most needed: in the 1980’s. Although, things are much better for people living with HIV now, we still have a long way to go and this is why ACT UP recently got on the streets again. We’re in a phase referred to as ‘the second silence’ by one of the main activists in ACT UP London and one of my good friends, Dan Glass. The first silence being in the 80’s, the second silence being now – for various reasons. The first being the cuts to HIV education and prevention services in the UK – leading to the second reason; the rise in transmission levels amongst certain demographics and the third reason being the general misconception that HIV is something that was resolved when the effective medication came along, in 1996.
In your interviews you faced some cynicism about PrEP. Where does that cynicism come from, do you think?
I think some of the cynicism expressed by some interviewees in my documentary comes from genuine concerns. PrEP is indeed a very exciting and crucial tool in the fight against HIV but there are some arguable reasons behind its current limited availability in the UK. The NHS being overstretched is one of them, though not the only one. One of the other reasons is that the trial process takes a while – we cannot just rely on another country’s findings and instead, have to get our very own results in the UK. Some have also expressed concerns about the possible long-term toxicity, the potential drug resistance for people who may then contract HIV further down the line; and concerns that it might lead to an increase in other important infections, such as Hep C, Syphilis or Gonorrhea. Those are potential risks, they haven’t been verified, nor refuted so far.
How have your views changed about PrEP since making the film?
My views on PrEP have evolved. I was relatively ignorant about the drug and the reasons behind its unavailability when I started this project earlier this year. At first, I didn’t understand why a preventive drug that had been shown to reduce the risk of getting HIV enormously wasn’t widely accessible and free of charge, I initially found that quite jarring.
I balanced my own argument over time. After talking to various people and considering different perspectives, I still think that PrEP should be available – though some concerns might need to be taken into consideration. I don’t personally think PrEP is appropriate for everybody. I think that groups who are the most at risk of contracting HIV should definitely be able to get their hands on it. However, who really needs the drug and who doesn’t? It’s a question that currently has no definite resolution and that I myself, cannot fully answer.
Having spent the past months thinking about PrEP, what do you think needs to be happening around PrEP education?
PrEP is something that is relatively unheard of in the UK at the moment, and unfortunately, so is HIV. HIV mostly relates to two taboo subjects; sex and drug – we don’t like to talk about those things. In addition, the ongoing cuts to HIV prevention and education lead to a general ignorance over the virus amongst younger generations – whilst HIV rates are still going up dramatically and have been doing so steadily for the past 10 years; it’s completely paradoxical.
We need to be well educated around HIV as a society and information on PrEP should be given as a part of this.