Zaji Zabalerio found a story that they needed to tell. A story about the first graduating class from Green Harbor Red Ribbon School – a high school for HIV-positive teens.
To do this story justice, Zabalerio would need to travel to the school in Linfen, China. But just getting to China – never mind making a film there – was complicated, and expensive, and they didn’t want to just fly in and fly out, they wanted to spend time with the high school students and develop real relationships with the graduates.
Zabalerio and the director of photography, Grayson Kohs, were busy finishing up their senior years as they commenced the vetting process to get visas. They smartly applied for, and received, $4,000 from the Virgin Unite Social Impact Films Fund at Emerson – this helped with plane tickets, expedited visas, and other expenses. All allowing them to make – Children of the Harbor. “We were really unsure if we were able to go because of mounting costs and all that,” Zabalerio said. “Those funds were really crucial.”
The Virgin Unite Social Impact Fund was formed through a partnership between Emerson College and Virgin Unite. It supports Emerson students in making documentary films that shed light on any one of a number of social issues. The program awards three to five students a total of $10,000 per year to make documentaries in conjunction with a nonprofit or grassroots organisation.
Zabalerio and Kohs partnered with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation – a Los Angeles-based non-profit that provides HIV testing and treatment worldwide – to expand their work to the Green Harbor Red Ribbon School in Linfen. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation were fantastic and helped Zabalerio with logistics and insurance.
Zabalerio first heard about the school two years earlier, from a Boston University medical student who was collaborating with a photojournalist from Myanmar. “When I first saw the footage coming out of there, [I thought] these kids are regular high school kids. They have crushes on each other, they get in fights with each other, they do things regular high school kids do,” Zabalerio said. “You couldn’t tell they were HIV positive. “[I wondered] why are these kids segregated? Why are these kids put in this position?” To help answer those questions, Zabalerio needed to meet the students and “capture a continuous flow” of footage.
They quickly learnt that HIV-positive children in China are able to go to public school – until they’re not. According to Zabalerio, because of the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS, if a student is somehow discovered to be HIV positive, parents of classmates will often complain until the student is kicked out. At that point, it’s difficult to find another public school that will take them in. Zabalerio found some instances where kids in villages have been officially banished by referendum.
The Green Harbor Red Ribbon School provides education, support, and treatment to 40 students and Children of the Harbor follows 16 who are about to graduate and go out into a world. Zabalerio is currently pre-editing the script so that when they (and Kohs) sit down with the editor, the process goes as smoothly as possible. They've come to see Children of the Harbor as a “foot in the door” to telling a much larger story.“The real story we’re interested in is what happens to these kids a year from now or five years from now,” they said.
“The Virgin Unite funds gave us a sense of a lifeline to continue the project and explore our options and get something out there for people to see. My goal is for people in China to see this, because that’s where the real change is going to happen,” said Zabalerio.
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The Virgin Unite Social Impact Fund provides funding for selected students from Emerson College to create short documentary films, short narrative films or public service announcements inspired by social impact themes.