AIDS videos document history of grass roots organization

"Her work speaks for itself," boasts a satisfied customer referring to hair stylist DiAna Diana. Video maker Ellen Spiro applied that phrase to other areas of Diana's "work"--her AIDS education work within the black community in South Carolina. Spiro let her work, her patrons and Diana speak for themselves in two documentaries about the grass roots AIDS education organizing that began in Diana's hair salon in Columbia, S.C., DiAna's Hair Ego.

In recognition of World AIDS Day Dec. 1, Carlos Museum presented both of Spiro's documentaries on Diana, "DiAna's Hair Ego: AIDS Info Up Front" (1990) and "Party Safe with DiAna and Bambi" (1992).

Spiro, a videomaker, writer and activist, works primarily with the small consumer format of video Hi-8 in making documentaries on women with AIDS and the need for safe sex awareness, as well as documenting certain aspects of the gay and lesbian subculture that she believes have been ignored by other video and film makers. With clips of hair salon patrons under hair dryers and with shampooed heads in sinks, "DiAna's Hair Ego" demonstrates Spiro's humorous approach to documenting a serious subject.

Elizabeth Hornor, coordinator of educational programs at Carlos Museum, explained how this video is different from films shown in the past. "A couple of years ago we showed a film about a man dying of AIDS. Last year, we showed a film with a film maker living with AIDS. This film is a more hopeful piece."

Hornor explained that the Diana videos represent the progress made in AIDS education and prevention. "This film is positive. It's such a terrible disease, but we must not lose sight of the positive things that have happened," she said.

In "Hair Ego," the history and development of the organization founded in Diana's hair salon, the South Carolina AIDS Education Network (SCAEN), are related through interviews and testimonials. Diana recalled how she began talking to clients about AIDS because of an article she had read, and when she realized the inadequacy of information on AIDS prevention, she began to offer brochures and phone numbers to customers. She explained how she and friends wrapped condoms in giftwrapping so that customers wouldn't feel discomfort in taking them. From these efforts, Diana developed a "Safe Sex Gospel" that included speeches to churches, school classrooms and women's groups. But in spite of her progress, Diana felt that she needed to present more.

Diana and her clients discussed how she developed her "sex-positive" approach to AIDS education. "Some of the university students I had been talking to came to me and said, `you told us what we couldn't do; now tell us what we can do.'" Diana and her partner Bambi Sumpter developed safe sex parties so that people could talk frankly and intimately about safe sex. One video clip showed a salon customer getting her hair done and talking about Diana's direct approach. "Nobody's goin' to go without no sex." she said. "This information has been a plus for me."

In a more solemn moment in the video, Diana and a customer discuss a friend who had been fired because he was "homosexual and didn't hide it and was out sick a lot." His employer believed that he had AIDS. This scene pans directly to a mother whose son died of AIDS speaking directly into the camera. She gives a heartfelt testimonial about the need for information.

In "Party Safe," Spiro pieces together a montage of clips from safe sex parties filmed in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Toronto, Los Angeles and Columbia. The clips range in contrast from reserved to very explicit discussions and acting out of safe sex fantasies. Diana and Sumpter use games, adult "sex toys," costumes, prophylactics, role-playing and erotic lingerie to create discussions about safe sex practices.

"I learned a lot of things I thought I already knew," one participant said.

--Matt Montgomery