Behind the Scenes with “Inside Story,” an Innovative Film about HIV/AIDS

A captive audience watches the film “Inside Story” during its 2012 US premiere in Silver Spring, Md. EGPAF’s Dr. Jeffrey Safrit, was one of the film’s scientific consultants.

Inside Story/ Ian Christmann

After watching the U.S. premiere of “Inside Story” in January 2012 in Silver Spring, Maryland, Dr. Jeffrey Safrit, director of clinical and basic research at the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF), smiled and sighed with relief. For Dr. Safrit, one of the movie’s scientific consultants, the film’s premiere was the culmination of six years of research, fine-tuning, and anticipation.

“Helping make ‘Inside Story’ was rewarding and it was great to be involved from the beginning,” Dr. Safrit said. “I was fortunate enough to watch it through the various stages and to help make it as impactful as possible while also being as scientifically realistic as possible.”

In the Q&A below, Dr. Safrit offers insight into what makes “Inside Story” such a powerful and unique approach to HIV/AIDS education.

How you would describe “Inside Story”?

“Inside Story” tells the story of Kalu, a young football player from Malindi, Kenya. As Kalu is recruited for a team in South Africa, the film chronicles his trials and tribulations with life, love, and HIV. The film blends live-action scenes with state-of-the-art animations of how HIV infects the body to tell the complete “inside story” of how HIV impacts Kalu’s life.

What sets this film apart from other HIV/AIDS movies?

I think it’s eye-opening to watch the film and to see what the virus actually does rather than just hearing it can be transmitted. The animation was something that really hadn’t been done before. It was a novel idea to help people understand the science and not just say, ‘You need to wear a condom.’ You can talk about the need for prevention until you’re blue in the face, but HIV is a completely preventable infection if you take the right precautions, certainly with respect to heterosexual transmission. The fact that AIDS is a full-blown epidemic speaks to the how hard it is to integrate prevention into sexual behaviors and lifestyles.

How did you come to be a scientific advisor for the film? 

In 2006, EGPAF got an email from the Discovery Channel Global Education Partnership (now the Discovery Learning Alliance) saying it was interested in making a feature film about the science of AIDS. It would be a dramatic film but it would have animation about the actual science of HIV infection. It seemed like an amazing project. At the time, no one had done anything like it. 

I was asked to be one of the film’s scientific advisors. I looked at the development of the script and how the language around HIV was being discussed. When they started talking about how they were going to animate HIV infection, our role as advisors was to make sure that everything was going to be scientifically correct.

Why do you think Kalu’s journey in “Inside Story” resonates with the audience?

The film is a love story that shows the reality of what happens when you sleep with someone and you don’t know their background. During the development of the story, the Discovery Channel team went through focus groups in Africa and shared the story with them. Then they talked about how realistic it was, whether it made sense, and if it would be something that would be interesting to the target audience, which is adolescents and young men and women who were sexually active.

What was the biggest challenge you had as a consultant?

The biggest challenge was translation. You can read what the project is on paper and you can provide comments and edits on how you think the language should sound, but until that animation is actually a started; it’s hard to know what it’s going to look like.

There’s a part in the film when HIV infects a T-cell.  The cell becomes active and when HIV begins to multiply inside the cell, the cell explodes. That was something that was --- not missed in the translation on paper to making it into an animated art of a movie – but it wasn’t verbatim.  The directors took dramatic license to make it look more exciting and dynamic, to show what happens when HIV potentially kills a cell and how it damages the immune system.

My job was making sure how they show it is as true as it can be, based on what we understand about transmission and what happens inside the body.

What was your final takeaway from this experience?

It was a very interesting overall process. I’m happy that the Discovery Channel team went to great lengths to make sure that the science of HIV would be represented in a way that was scientifically accurate while at the same time accessible to a wide audience. I would recommend everyone to take a look as it’s a great story apart from the animation itself.

“Inside Story” is currently playing in select locations around the world and is now available for digital download from iTunes, Amazon, and other partners.

Dr. Jeffrey Safrit is EGPAF’s Director of Clinical and Basic Research, based in Los Angeles, Calif.