Heart of the Matter, The (1994): Docu about AIDS among Women

Sundance Film Fest 1994 (Documentary Competition)–The Heart of the Matter, the first documentary to examine the complex issue of AIDS among women, makes a significant contribution to the growing body of films about the lethal disease.

Docu’s structure is a bit amorphous, but the central interviewee, African-American Janice Jirau, is so charismatic and so honest about her struggle with AIDS that she makes this work a must-see for all viewers, particularly younger women.

Producers-directors Gini Reticker and Amber Hollibaugh have selected an interesting cross-section of women (African-Americans, lesbians, housewives), who talk most candidly about the implications of being afflicted with AIDS, specifically the myths surrounding the virus. Influenced by irresponsible articles in popular magazines, and by the way mainstream society has labeled the epidemic, initially most of these women innocently felt they were excluded from the high-risk categories.

Ultimately, what makes The Heart of the Matter emotionally affecting and touching is its strategy: a detailed case study of one African-American woman as she goes through the phases, from being diagnosed HIV-positive to her death, just months before the documentary was completed. Janice Jirau relates how as a loyal, obedient wife, she consented to her husband’s wish not to use condoms, even after he was treated for AIDS at the hospital. “I loved my husband,” she says, “and felt that I needed to prove that, so whatever he needed I gave him.”

After his death, however, Jirau’s consciousness was raised and she became politically active, recruiting the support of her extended family, challenging outdated religious preaching and right-wing myths (“AIDS is punishment from God”), lecturing to female groups, and testifying in Washington D.C. before the Federal AIDS Commission.

Jirau’s story is interspersed with comments by half-a-dozen women about their experiences, an approach that tends to diffuse the emotional impact of the chief story. Still, framing the personal interviews with vital, if gloomy, statistics that AIDS is now the top killer of young African-American women and that it’s one of the leading causes of death for all women between 18 and 44, makes this documentary extremely relevant, even urgent.

Winning the Sundance Film Festival’s Freedom of Expression Award, The Heart of the Matter is an uplifting documentary that could not have made a stronger case for its motto: “We’re in a race between education and catastrophe.”


Produced, directed by Gini Reticker and Amber Hollibaugh. Executive producer, Reticker. Camera (color), Ellen Kuras, Maryse Alberti; editor, Ann Collins; music, Gregg Mann, Leo Colon; associate producer, Tracey Loggia. Reviewed at the Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Utah, January 23, 1994. (Also in Berlin Festival). Running time: 56 min.