Interview: William Brawner on '25 To Life' and Living With HIV/AIDS
Photo Credit: S & A
Features

Interview: William Brawner on '25 To Life' and Living With HIV/AIDS

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For over 25 years, William Brawner kept his HIV-Positive

status a secret from everyone in his life except for a few close family

members. After engaging in risky sexual behavior as a popular student on the

campus of Howard University, he eventually went on to expose his secret as an

adult, and suffered the fallout of reactions from his classmates, friends and

community.

Brawner’s experience is captured in "25 To Life,"

the new feature documentary directed by Mike Brown, which AFFRM brings to

theaters nationwide on World AIDS Day, December 1. He made time to speak with

S&A about the movie and his life as an HIV/AIDS educator at Haven Youth

Center in Philadelphia.

JAI TIGGETT: The film

is focused on your health and diagnosis, but also the health and relationships

with your family. How’s everyone doing today?

WILLIAM BRAWNER:

Everybody is fine. At the time I was filming the movie I was 25 years Positive.

Now I’ve been Positive for 34 years, so a lot has changed. Unfortunately [wife]

Bridgette and I are no longer together, but we’re still close friends and our

son is doing very well.

Haven Youth Center is thriving. We’ve opened up some new

programs and we’re serving a lot more people. We now have a camp, the same camp

that I went to as a child, and we work with a lot more youth than we did when

we first started.

As far as my health, it’s good. I spend so much time doing

everything else that I probably should take more time and focus on that, but

I’m still undetectable, which is a blessing.

"25 To

Life" is a completely personal film. What made you say yes to making it?

The film came about because I give a lot of speeches across

the country, and I wanted to make a five-minute snippet of a day in the life of

someone being HIV-Positive. Just something to play before I would give a

speech.

I called my roommate at the time, who was getting his

masters degree from NYU. And I said Mike, I just need to know what kind of

camera I need to buy to make this look good. He gave me some expensive camera that

cost a thousand bucks and I’m like, Mike I can’t afford that. I’m not doing

that. The next day he called me and said listen, I have an idea of how we can

make this way bigger than what you’re thinking. And here we are.

Tell me about the

filming process. You and the director knew each other, but what was it like

sharing everything on camera?

It was very hard. At first it’s difficult to be in front of

a camera 24/7. You’re tripping over chords and equipment. But after a while I

kinda got used to it and they became like a piece of the furniture. Sometimes I

was like, just shut the camera off. I can’t believe I said that and I can’t

believe you guys actually got that, I can’t believe that I’ve been this

vulnerable. It was difficult.

[iw-blockquote]”My mission, my purpose and my passion now is to educate people on HIV and AIDS. And to hear that people still don’t care, burns.”

— William Brawner[/iw-blockquote]

There were years

spent filming. When you finally saw the finished documentary – saw your story

unfold onscreen and saw everything that friends and family had to say in the

film – what was your reaction?

Well the first time I saw it, I didn’t know everyone that

had been interviewed and what they had to say. I hadn’t seen much of anything

so I had no idea what was going to be in it. And all the problems that I had, I

remember going through them. I saw how confused I was, how angry I was.

Whatever emotions I had while I was living those moments, I felt like I relived

them when I watched the film for the first time.

There’s a scene in the movie where I’m trying to pick out

the clothes that I’m going to wear to Howard University’s homecoming. That was

a troubling time for me, and to live it is one thing, but to see it was just

like, oh my God. I was so confused, so lost. Like how am I even supposed to

dress? And I remember those emotions and I’m just thankful that I’m in a better

place now.

There’s a big

emphasis on popularity and appearances as the film shows you growing into

maturity. How much of that was influenced by your Positive status, and the idea

that people might not accept you if they knew?

I definitely think that a lot of my urge to be popular was

maybe a cover-up because people really didn’t know who I was. I knew a lot of

people, but I was always so scared to get deep with anyone because you can only

go so far if you’re not going to tell them everything about yourself. This was

a major thing that I kept to myself, so I really wasn’t able to build

long-lasting friendships at the time. And I think the popularity was just a way

for me to feel socially accepted and not so isolated.

There’s a scene in

the film where you’re on the radio talking about HIV/AIDS education and getting

tested. Kevin Hart is on the same show, and he mentions how he doesn’t want to

know his status. What it’s like for you to hear things like that, knowing that

you yourself used to engage in risky behavior when it came to the virus?

My mission, my purpose and my passion now is to educate

people on HIV and AIDS. And to hear that people still don’t care, burns. It

hurts me because it’s such a major issue and people want to act like it doesn’t

exist. With [that scene], we spent all this time trying to educate people and

we’re getting good feedback on the show and then, as popular as he is, to say

something like that, completely swept everything under the rug. It makes the

problem worse to act like it doesn’t exist, and then people don’t take the

proper precautions, the proper medications, and it increases the stigma.

What’s your response

to that as a counselor?

Well let me tell you, Haven is the program that I used to

dream about when I was going through side effects of medication in my bed alone

because there was no one to talk to. So I try to make myself into the person

that I wish I had seen. Maybe I wouldn’t have made some of the decisions that I

made if I had a mentor, a role model, someone I could touch. Magic Johnson was

there, but before he had HIV he was an NBA superstar and he was untouchable.

So I try to make myself into this person who could help a

younger me when I was going through that. I tell them the truth about my story

– the whole truth, just how I tell it in the film. And I talk about how lives

were impacted, how I felt when I was doing it, and how I feel now. I let them

know that the decisions that you make in regards to your diagnosis are going to

follow you for the rest of your life.

"25 To Life" opens in theaters across the country on December

1. Find show times and tickets HERE. 

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