Over 1,000,000 teenage girls get pregnant every year and over 500,000 become mothers.
3,000,000 teenagers acquire a sexually transmitted disease every year.
25% of Americans infected with the HIV virus are under the age of 20.
These facts are alarming. Even more frightening is the fact that HIV infection in America is increasing most rapidly among teenagers. Sex and Other Matters of Life and Death chronicles a year in the life of a teenage theater company which performs for adolescents, trying to raise awareness about the risks young people face growing up in the age of AIDS. Premiering in December on PBS (check local listings), this powerful one-hour documentary, presented by Thirteen/WNET in New York, combines intimate profiles of a diverse group of young actors with engaging scenes from their performances to capture the frightening realities of adolescent sexuality.
STAR Theatre, a part of the HIV/AIDS Prevention and Treatment Program at Mount Sinai Hospital's Adolescent Health Center in New York, uses drama and peer education to combat teen pregnancy and AIDS.
Sex and Other Matters of Life and Death follows the company to public and private schools, a shelter for homeless youth, and other youth organizations to capture the performances of these talented actors. The group's captivating performances always conclude with a question and answer session during which the teenage audience interacts with the performers who stay in character. The film captures these uncensored moments as awkward questions are posed, surprising disclosures are made, and difficult emotional issues are handled with candor, respect, and sensitivity. Because the conversations provide a safe, judgment-free forum for the teens in STAR Theatre's audience, they are free to express themselves in ways that are often raw, sometimes amusing, and occasionally tragic. "I've spent the last two decades producing social issue documentaries for public television, and none of my 17 previous productions is as important or as timely as Sex and Other Matters of Life and Death ," says producer/director Roger Weisberg. "After I saw STAR Theatre perform for the first time, I became convinced that a documentary about this unique theater company could provide not only a poignant illustration of the frightening realities of adolescent sexuality but, also, could offer some sorely needed information about how young people can reduce risk and avoid pregnancy and disease."
Under the direction of Dr. Cydelle Berlin, the co-director of the Adolescent AIDS Program at Mt. Sinai Hospital and founder of STAR Theatre, the company's reach extends beyond young audiences. At a demonstration in front of the NYC Board of Education, Dr. Berlin and members of the theater company testify to the importance of comprehensive sex education in schools, protesting the board's decision to exclude information and lessons about condoms from the junior high school curriculum. "I'm 16 years old and I attend high school in the city" says Adjowah, a 4th year STAR member. "I have had this curriculum of sex-ed from the age of 10 until now. I have many friends who are abstinent, and many friends who are sexually active. There is nothing wrong with any of my friends because of the decisions they have made. Sex does not equal death. Ignorance equals death." Despite the protest of STAR Theatre, the restricted curriculum passed. For Dr. Berlin, however, the battle continues. "If we don't give kids the word, the vocabulary, the information and explain in detail how you protect yourself, America's kids are going to die," she says.
As the program evolves, STAR performers struggle with the same problems in their own lives that they are dramatizing on stage. At one point, Sex and Other Matters of Life and Death takes viewers into a Manhattan classroom where STAR actors perform a scene about a clinic where three teenagers are being tested for HIV. Jamaul, one of the company's young male performers also goes through the process. Jamaul, however, is not acting. Admitting to having experiences that might put him at risk, he decides to take the HIV test. "I have not always been safe. I think I have like this Superman type of psychosis. If something's going to happen to me, it's going to happen anyway,"he says. "I don't think that I would ever get AIDS, like I don't think that I would ever get hit by a car." The film ultimately becomes a rich tapestry, interweaving the experiences, on and off stage, of a talented group of young actors.
One of the program's most moving portraits is of Evan, Dr. Berlin's daughter, who is sick with the AIDS virus. During the year, she loses her lover and almost dies herself. Her harrowing battle with AIDS becomes an inspiration to the STAR performers. They respond to Evan's illness as well as their own turmoil with uncommon openness and honesty.
A viewer's guide for Sex and Other Matters of Life and Death will be offered free to viewers and distributed to thousands of educators, youth organizations, and health care providers nationwide. The guide is written by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) and published by Thirteen/WNET.
Sex and Other Matters of Life and Death is a production of Public Policy Productions in association with Thirteen/WNET in New York. The program is produced and directed by Roger Weisberg. The editors are Lawrence Silk and Philip Shane. The cinematographer is Alex Zakrzewski. The associate producer is Wendy Berry. The production coordinator is Deborah Clancy. The audio engineer is Daniel Brooks. Original music is composed, arranged, and produced by Michael Levine.
Sex and Other Matters of Life and Death is made possible by the generous support of the Abbott Laboratories Fund, Estate of Frederick Brahms, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Charlpeg Foundation, Inc., Marvin H. Davidson Foundation, Charles A. Frueauff Foundation, Inc., Bernard F. and Alva B. Gimbel Foundation, Inc., Herman Goldman Foundation, Ittleson Foundation, Inc., JENJO Foundation, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, J.M. Kaplan Fund, Patricia Kind, Harvey M. and Constance Krueger, Leonard Litwin, John M. Lloyd Foundation, Loews Foundation, New York Community Trust-Samaratrophia Fund, Henry Nias Foundation, Overbrook Foundation, Frederick and Amelia Schimper Foundation, Silverweed Foundation, Spunk Fund, Inc., Estate of Kent Tiffany, Tisch Foundation, Inc., Trull Foundation, H. van Ameringen Foundation, and Laura B. Vogler Foundation, Inc.