Chapel Hill grad student takes on HIV/AIDS

Feature documentary is joint project with Winston-Salem’s Tough Spun Studios

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: August 7, 2010 in A&E / Life&Style

At 24 and as a graduate student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Julian Wooten is not your run-of-the-mill documentary producer or director. Yet, he’s found a topic and issue for which he’s intensely passionate and he’s determined to turn that passion into a broader good.

Julian Wooten, right, with interview subject Miss North Carolina Kristie Tobias

Wooten has been filming interviews and other footage for his documentary, “Heart to HAART: The State of the HIV/AIDS Movement,” since May’s North Carolina AIDS Action Day. To get the project accomplished, he’s teamed up with Justin Kuhn and Jessica Barker of the Winston-Salem-based Tough Spun Studios.

The documentary is an in-depth exploration of the state of the HIV/AIDS movement in North Carolina and comes at no better a time. This year, AIDS service providers, people living with AIDS and advocates have waged an uphill battle as funding for services failed to keep up with demand. In January, state officials capped new enrollment to the state’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP), a cap that was lifted only slightly with the addition of an extra $14 million to the program in this fiscal year’s budget.

Wooten studied biology and chemistry as an undergrad at UNC-Chapel Hill and is now a student in the Molecular Pharmaceutics Division of UNC’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy. There he has poured his heart into studies of HIV and its transmission, prevention and treatment. He’s also studied the policy and politics. For Wooten, however, the topic of HIV/AIDS is more than an exercise in academic thought and learning. As a youth, a boyfriend contracted the virus after the two split.

“It was tough for me,” Wooten told qnotes. “He was the face of the disease for me. I saw what he went through. He was closeted to his parents and had to come out and tell them he had HIV at the same time. He didn’t have a lot of support and it put a real face on it for me.”

Wooten says his unique and deeply personal connection to the virus has helped him connect with the individuals he’s interviewed for his documentary. “I understand where they are coming from,” he said.

Barker, who owns Tough Spun Studios with fiancé Kuhn, said the two were first attracted to Wooten’s project because of his “critically social mind.”

“Julian is just a lovely, incredibly intellectual man,” Baker said. “What sealed the deal for me was meeting him. When I met him, I said, ‘Yes, he wants to do this for all the right reasons and he’s going to finish it and it won’t get half done.’”

Tough Spun Studios’ Jessica Barker and Justin Kuhn interview advocate Justin Smith.

Wooten’s “right reasons” are being reflected in Barker’s and Kuhn’s commitment. Their production company is fronting production expenses and equipment. The reason is simple, Barker said: “The production company is putting up all the equipment and our time and we’re doing it happily. We are doing this because it is just the right thing to do.”

Barker said she was active in LGBT advocacy as a college student, and sees the film as an opportunity to get back into the discussion. “It is sort of taking me back to my days of being active,” she said. “I thought this would be a good opportunity to get back involved and do something worthwhile for North Carolina and our communities.”

Wooten, who is producing and directing the film, has interviewed people with AIDS, elected leaders like state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird (D-Orange, Person) and AIDS service organization leaders. Barker, is co-producing,and Kuhn, who is operating cinematography and editing work, have joined him for each of the interviews.

“People have been really wonderful about allowing our cameras to get full, panoramic access,” Wooten said.

He hopes the film will enlighten audiences about the challenges faced by those who struggle with the virus and especially for the many who often can’t afford to live and pay for medications at the same time.

“We want to focus heavily on the movement, and talk about the specific policies and people involved in the fight,” he said.

Wooten and Barker are expecting to have at least a portion of the film ready to screen by Dec. 1, World AIDS Day. It’s quite a feat to accomplish, but Wooten is more than sure it can be done, despite his busy life, work and school schedules: “People ask me, ‘How do you keep all this going?’ I tell them, ‘This is not work for me. This is a labor of love, without the labor.’” : :