Skip to main content

Journalist John Cohen on AIDS in Asia

Journalist Jon Cohen recently finished a four-part series on HIV and AIDS in Asia for the Science Magazine. In researching the series, he traveled to six countries and talked to doctors, patients, public health officials, sex workers and drug users. Cohen has been writing about the AIDS epidemic for 15 years. His book on the search for a vaccine is called Shots in the Dark.

23:04

Other segments from the episode on August 11, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 11, 2004: Interview with Jon Cohen; Interview with Brenwon Hughes; Review of a new box set by the band Faces, “Five Guys Walk into a Bar.”

Transcript

DATE August 11, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Jon Cohen discusses the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Asia
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

Last December, the premier of China, Wen Jiabao, did something regarded as
extraordinary. He allowed himself to be photographed greeting a former taxi
driver from Shanxi province who's being treated for AIDS. The event signaled
the awakening of the Chinese government to the threat HIV poses to its 1.3
billion people at a time when countries across Asia are hoping to avoid the
catastrophic AIDS epidemic that has befallen sub-Saharan Africa.

My guest, writer Jon Cohen, recently published a four-part series on AIDS in
Asia for the journal Science. In researching the series, Cohen traveled to
six countries, talking to doctors, patients, public health officials, sex
workers and drug users. Cohen has been writing on the AIDS epidemic for 15
years. His book on the search for a vaccine is called "Shots in the Dark."
Cohen has also followed the AIDS crisis in Africa. I asked him how the
situation in Asia compares.

Mr. JON COHEN (Author, "Shot in the Dark"): Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia are
remarkably different places, and it's even hard to talk about entire
continents as one place. Africa is not one place. I mean, Africa has some
countries that have high HIV prevalence, some that have low, and the same is
true in Asia. But there are some stark differences between the continents,
and I think it is fair to speak about them on that level.

For one thing, there's nowhere in Asia that has a prevalence--that means the
percentage of the people in a population who are infected--that comes anywhere
near the high-prevalence areas in Africa, so that's one very stark difference.
In Botswana, for example, 38 percent of the adults are infected; South Africa,
it's about 20 percent of the adults. The highest prevalence you see in Asia
is right around 4 percent.

DAVIES: And does that mean that the growth of the virus can be stemmed in
Asia? Are people optimistic?

Mr. COHEN: People see a window of opportunity now in Asia that has closed in
many African countries that have been hard-hit. It also means that the
patterns of spread differ in the two continents, and there are some sharp
distinctions that are very real. Africa, in the high-prevalence areas, has a
pattern of both men and women having concurrent sexual partners, meaning more
than one partner in the same year. In Asia, by and large, you don't see many
women who have several partners in the same year outside of sex workers, and
that's one really critical factor that can drive an epidemic to much higher
prevalence levels.

DAVIES: So that's simply a cultural difference.

Mr. COHEN: Simply a cultural difference. Now it's not true across the board.
There are pockets here and there in Asia that look like Africa. But, by and
large, it is a fact that epidemiologists have begun to bring to light, and it
steers how you deal with trying to prevent the spread.

Let me give you another example. Africa really doesn't have much heroin, and
that means there's not much sharing of needles and spreading the virus by that
route of transmission. In Asia, one in three new infections is by sharing
dirty needles. Heroin is all over the place in Asia. Afghanistan is the
largest producer, followed by Burma, which the military junta has renamed
Myanmar, and then Laos is third in line for producing heroin. So you see the
spread through dirty needles all over Asia and you don't see that in Africa.

DAVIES: Last December, the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, was shown in the
media visiting three AIDS patients, and I guess in China, if that's covered by
the Chinese media, that's a clear shift in government policy. What prompted
him to wake up and take that public gesture?

Mr. COHEN: Yeah, it was a hugely symbolic act that he did that, and, you
know, on the one hand, you might say, `Hey, it's 2003 when he did this.
What's the big deal? He's shaking the hands of AIDS patients,' but it was a
big deal in China, where discrimination and stigma are very, very prevalent
all over the country about HIV. And it was prompted by, I think, a confluence
of events. One is China received a tremendous amount of criticism
internationally for how it handled SARS and the outbreak, and by not more
forthrightly dealing with the international community in the spread of that
disease. Then the price of anti-retroviral drugs, of anti-HIV drugs, has
plummeted, which has forced countries all over the world to deal with the
question of: Are they going to offer those drugs to their people? There also
is a change in leadership in China, and so I think the confluence of those
things led China to really question its role in dealing with its own epidemic.

DAVIES: Now wasn't there a scandal involving the transmission of the virus
and blood selling, selling blood for money in China?

Mr. COHEN: Yeah, I forgot to mention that. That was another very big prod to
the central government to change things. In China, many poor people sold
their blood so that the plasma could be used elsewhere. And their blood was
pooled and their red blood was put back in them, and they infected
approximately a quarter of a million people is the best government estimate
I've seen, and people were paid about $5 per donation. These are very poor
farming communities mostly, and I visited some of those villages and the level
of devastation there is also just on an African scale.

DAVIES: Give us a picture of your visit to one of those villages.

Mr. COHEN: Well, I went to a village where about 20 to 30 percent of the
people are infected. The government is trying to get HIV drugs to these
people. The program is stumbling for a number of, I think, really sobering
reasons that many people around the world could learn from. It's really hard
to take a lot of pills every single day, and if you miss some pills, HIV will
beat its way around the drugs and become resistant to the drugs. People also
have side effects of the drugs. They're not anticipating these, and when they
get them, they stop taking their medicine. That's happened all over these
provinces in China that had the blood sellers receive treatment and they don't
have enough trained physicians who really understand how to use the drugs,
what to do about side effects and how to monitor people who are on them. So
as much as the world would like to see poor people everywhere receive anti-HIV
drugs who need them, the technical issues are staggering.

DAVIES: A lot of the drugs that are used to treat HIV and AIDS symptoms
really work best if people have decent food and nutrition. How does poverty
affect the ability of governments to treat AIDS with drugs?

Mr. COHEN: You know, AIDS basically just picks the scab off the wounds of
society. Certainly if people have poor nutrition, their immune system isn't
going to recover as well when you give them AIDS drugs. It's all connected.
I mean, the same is true for clean water, which probably makes more people
sick in the world than anything else, and if you need to drink water with your
drugs, it's all connected. HIV's just exposing it. I don't see any way to
separate it, and you just try to do the best you can in bad situations.

DAVIES: In the villages that you visited in China that had been ravaged by
HIV, was there a different mix of young kids and old people and parents?

Mr. COHEN: Who were infected?

DAVIES: Yeah. Or who were still around. I mean, did you find villages where
there'd been a lot of deaths and, you know, kind of decimation of the parent
population?

Mr. COHEN: I didn't see that so much, but I did see a lot of new orphanages
being built, which is an indicator of that. I met with several people who
were probably infected in the mid-1990s. So they--even without treatment,
they'd only now just be getting sick. So again it speaks back to how old is
the epidemic, and it's not as though there were people dying in the rice
fields as I walked around. They had started to deliver drugs to these people.
So people--I mean, one woman I met with, she was bragging to me how she was
chubby now. She pushed her cheeks. She said, `Look, I'm chubby. I'm
chubby.' You don't often hear women bragging about being chubby, and her
point was, `These drugs have saved my life. You know, it's turned around my
health completely.' And I met more people who are that course right now.

But all of this is is you've got to look at a snapshot in time. I mean, China
is missing a key drug to treat HIV--it's called 3TC--simply because they have
yet to work out a deal with the manufacturer and they're not able because of
World Trade Organization policy to purchase the generic version. Without that
drug, you're going to see a lot of failure in the people receiving treatment
in China. I think it's a catastrophe waiting to happen.

DAVIES: Why would the World Trade Organization policy prohibit China from
purchasing the generic drug?

Mr. COHEN: Well, there are patent laws, and each country signs on to the
World Trade Organization at different points in time and agrees to observe
world patents. Some countries signed on at different times and can produce
these drugs generically without fear of being punished. China technically
could do it through--there's a procedure where you could do a compulsory
license in doing it, but some believe that China doesn't want to antagonize
the big pharmaceutical companies which are setting up quite an impressive
beachhead in Shanghai.

DAVIES: One of the big problems in southern Africa with both the growth of
the virus and treating it was the ostracism that faced people who were
infected. Is that a big issue in Asian cultures as well?

Mr. COHEN: Yes, absolutely, and it takes on a different face everywhere, but
it's basically the same. People who are infected with HIV are stigmatized and
there is discrimination most everywhere I've been. In India, interestingly,
women have a specific problem because oftentimes a family will learn that a
man is infected because his pregnant wife goes to the hospital to give birth
and they test her. In traditional Indian society, women have arranged
marriages and they live with the husband's parents. So the woman comes home
from the hospital--and I met many women like this--says that she's HIV
infected, and the family kicks her out, assuming that she's done something
wrong when, in fact, it's the husband who likely saw a sex worker or somehow
had sex outside the marriage and brought the virus home.

DAVIES: So she's kicked out, and what becomes of her?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I met with several women who had been kicked out and were
taken in by their own parents again or other relatives. It's a horrible
situation. I saw a lot of non-governmental organizations, NGOs, working with
women who had been in this situation trying to help them get back on their
feet. Some--I met with a group in Calcutta that specifically provides housing
and helps these women find new jobs. It's one of these eye-popping things
that I never imagined until I saw it up close.

DAVIES: My guest is writer Jon Cohen. We'll talk some more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're back with writer Jon Cohen. He's recently completed a
four-part series on AIDS in Asia for the journal Science magazine.

And is it true that traffic cops in Thailand hand out condoms?

Mr. COHEN: At times, that happens. It's not a--I've never been handed a
condom by a traffic cop in Thailand, and I've been there a number of times.
So it happens, but it's not a big part of the strategy to deliver condoms. I
mean, the strategy to deliver condoms is largely focused on sex workers, and
basically, they are compelled to use condoms and to convince their clients to
use condoms, and they have to do it with a high degree of unity because if men
know they can go down the block and have sex without a condom for a few more
Thai baht, that's what they'll do. So you have to have a lot of unity in the
sex worker community and in the brothel owners as well; they have to be
pushing it. And I think that's really where Thailand has focused, in addition
to having a senator, Mechai, who has started a chain of restaurants called
Cabbages & Condoms, and he aggressively promotes condoms every chance he gets.
You don't see many politicians around the world doing that.

DAVIES: Now explain this, Cabbages & Condoms?

Mr. COHEN: Yeah, it's a restaurant that the profits all go to supporting
HIV-prevention efforts and the waiters sometimes blow up condoms and wear them
on their head and there are just condoms everywhere. So they make a condom as
comfortable an item, as fun an item as, like, a party balloon or something.
And Mechai is famous for his antics. He's a colorful character. He's very
smart. He's the son of two physicians, and he's written a book about all of
this as well.

DAVIES: You mentioned that the key in Thailand was getting all of the sex
workers or most all of them involved so that people couldn't go to a brothel
down the street and have sex without a condom. How did the government do
that? Was it a matter of grass-works organizing, coercion, both?

Mr. COHEN: I think it was both. You know, the sex worker industry in much of
Asia is de facto illegal, but if you look more closely, you see that there are
links to the government and to the police in particular in many regions. In
some places I've been told that the police own all the brothels and they're
the landlords. I'm not saying that about Thailand, but Thailand certainly has
had links between the police department and the brothels. So I think it's
both the public health workers and the politicians and the police working
through all different channels.

Now Thailand also has to keep up its guard. Their success story can evaporate
quickly, and there are regions in Thailand that have not had success at all.
And I was in the north with the hill tribe people, the Akah, and they don't
have any of these services. They don't speak the Thai language. They don't
have Thai citizenship. And there's a big problem in the northern region of
Thailand with these disenfranchised people and HIV.

DAVIES: You mentioned that the country of Thailand had had a relatively
successful campaign battling the growth of the HIV/AIDS problem. By contrast,
the country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is ruled by a military
dictatorship that took over in 1988. What did you find there?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I toured the country and I went officially again with a
minder, and the health-care system itself looks like it has AIDS. It's just a
bare-bones system that has very little to offer anyone. Medecins Sans
Frontieres, Doctors Without Borders, has a clinic outside of Rangoon, now
known as Yangon, that had started to treat people with anti-HIV drugs. They
had 13 people on treatment--one three--in a country that probably has a higher
prevalence than anywhere in Asia. Now the junta has changed. There is a more
aggressive campaign to prevent HIV spread and to help HIV-infected people.
But, you know, the virus waits for no one. And it takes advantage of every
misstep that politicians make. And the Burmese government, the junta in
Myanmar, has allowed the virus to trample through much of the country
unabated. And given the role of heroin and the gem mines there, it further
exacerbates the situation greatly.

It reminds me of South Africa. You know, South Africa has these diamond mines
in the center of the country, and you see all this migration coming from both
the east and the west coast. So typically men leave their girlfriends or
spouses, their wives, and they go the center of the country for six months,
work in these mines, make all this money. There are lots of sex workers
there, lots of drugs, lots of alcohol. It's a perfect environment for HIV.

You see a very similar situation in Myanmar with the gem mines. They have
ruby, jade, sapphire mines. And I met several men who go work at the mines
for three, four months. There are a lot of sex workers there. If you have a
good day, you make a tremendous amount of money. And what do you do at the
end of the day? Well, you party with your friends, maybe you smoke some
heroin, maybe you shoot some heroin and maybe you hire a sex worker. That's
life. And if you're going to really tackle HIV in Myanmar, that's where
you've got to go. And I don't see much happening at those places, nor would
they let me visit those places, to be frank. I mean, they didn't want me to
see them.

DAVIES: Did you say you did speak with some gem mine workers, though?

Mr. COHEN: I did, yes. I met gem mine workers who had become HIV-infected at
the mines, they believed. And they described the mines for me. And--I mean,
I was very near the mines; they just wouldn't let me go right to the mines.
And they had a long list of reasons, some of which may have been valid.
There's no telling when you're dealing with a government like that.

DAVIES: What...

Mr. COHEN: I mean, I must say, the government let me in. You know, they let
me in officially. Loads of journalists go there as tourists. I didn't want
to do that. They were very accommodating to me, given their history and
reputation with the media.

DAVIES: What did the gem mine workers tell you about what was going on there,
and their own knowledge of HIV when they were infected?

Mr. COHEN: It was a good time. Knowledge of HIV was low. Many people in
Asia and Africa learn about HIV after they become infected. They don't even
know about the disease. It was a good time had by all. I mean, the
descriptions I heard of the gem mines made it sound like the Wild, Wild West.

DAVIES: And does the prevalence of HIV in that community pose a threat to
other countries?

Mr. COHEN: Sure. I mean, there have been studies that have looked at HIV's
spread outward from Myanmar and that has done--the study did a molecular
epidemiological analysis where they looked at the gene sequences of the HIV
strains traveling around Asia. And they could map that the virus moved along
the heroin trade routes from Myanmar in every direction. So certainly it
spreads from there.

I mean, again, I'm always hesitant to, like, place blame. It's not Myanmar's
fault that there's HIV in Asia. There's HIV in Asia because there's HIV
anywhere the virus can go, and it will simply take advantage of any situation
it can. Heroin trade routes--that's a great situation for a virus. It wants
to move around. It wants to copy itself. I think we always have to see the
world of HIV through HIV's eyes, so to speak.

DAVIES: You've been writing about HIV/AIDS for 15 years, and I'm wondering,
how much hope, how much despair do you feel about where we are with this
disease?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I'm not--I don't have a sunny personality where I look at
everything and think, `Oh, boy, this is great.' I look at it critically. I
have more hope now than I did a few years ago about poor people receiving
treatment because the prices of drugs have plummeted and there's been the
emergence of the Global Fund to Treat AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which is
a revolutionary force. The search for a vaccine has always been first and
foremost, in my mind, to stop the epidemic, because I think that's the only
true way to stop HIV. And it's moved slowly; it's been poorly organized.
There is a movement afoot now to create what's called a vaccine enterprise to
start steering the field. I'm optimistic that that could make a difference.
But most everything moves too slowly with HIV. And as I mentioned earlier,
the virus waits for no one. So I get really frustrated at how long it takes
to do anything.

DAVIES: Well, Jon Cohen, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. COHEN: Thanks so much for having me.

DAVIES: Writer Jon Cohen. His four-part series on AIDS in Asia was published
in the journal Science.

I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

DAVIES: Coming up, Andre Stander was a legend in South Africa, the
apartheid-era cop who turned against the system and became a notorious bank
robber. His exploits are the subject of a new film. We'll talk with director
Bronwen Hughes. Also, critic Milo Miles reviews the new Faces box set, "Five
Guys Walk into a Bar."

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Brenwon Hughes discusses her latest film, "Stander"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.

In the apartheid era of South Africa of the late '70s, one of Johannesburg's
most celebrated police captains became the country's most notorious criminal.
Detective Andre Stander was troubled by his experiences serving on riot
control squads confronting black student protests, and he eventually started
robbing banks, even while serving on the force. Once caught he broke out of
prison with two associates in 1983 and spent several months robbing more
banks, changing disguises, embarrassing the police and becoming a folk legend.

Andre Stander's exploits are the subject of a new film by my guest, director
Bronwen Hughes. She got her start working with the offbeat Canadian comedy
troupe Kids in the Hall. She directed the children's film "Harriet the Spy,"
and was noticed by Steven Spielberg, who invited her to do a film for
DreamWorks. That was "Forces of Nature" starring Sandra Bullock and Ben
Affleck. In "Stander," the title role is played by Thomas Jane. Here he is
in a scene which takes place in a bank he's just robbed in minimal disguise.
He's with his police colleagues investigating his own crime, interviewing the
teller.

(Soundbite of "Stander")

Mr. THOMAS JANE: (As Detective Andre Stander) I know, it's been a bad day.
You OK now? I'm sure, Miss, we've been through this over and over, but could
you tell me exactly what you saw?

Unidentified Actress: (As bank teller) You.

Mr. JANE: (As Detective Andre Stander) Me?

Unidentified Actresss: (As bank teller) I mean--I don't know what I mean.
It's just he was, you know, like you.

Mr. JANE: (As Detective Andre Stander) Want to take me in, Captain?

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: I asked director Bronwen Hughes what she learned about what led Andre
Stander astray.

Ms. BRONWEN HUGHES (Director, "Stander"): Well, there are many conflicting
opinions about it because what people would know about him they would have
read in the press, and the press, of course, was owned by the government of
South Africa at that time. And anything they could have read in the papers
was not at all interested in a balanced or, never mind, sympathetic portrait
of the man. So there are some people who, you know, argue that he was just
pure greedy and--however, I've been in South Africa, meeting every single
person who knew the man, firsthand accounts of him at that time or people he
served with on the police force and best friends and his wife's hairdresser,
everybody we could, you know, find. And, really, he was a very complicated
person. So there were several things that fed him.

But I know from his discussions in the late nights in prison with Allan Hayle,
as well as his defense on the stand, that the time he spent on the riot squad
in Tembisa, which is the northeast township of Johannesburg, where, in the
name of duty, they were essentially demanded to commit murder, you know. So
they were firing live ammunition at unarmed student protesters. And this--in
the film, it's crystalized into a single dramatic sequence, but, in fact, this
time went on for months and months and years and years for some people. That
period made him such a shell of a man that he never quite got over it. And as
Allan Hayle put it--he said, `The penny dropped for Andre during that time.'
So his defense on the witness stand was that, `Although I'm here on trial for
robbing banks, I've killed unarmed people, and nobody seemed interested in
that.'

DAVIES: Give us one of his more colorful heists.

Ms. HUGHES: Well, at a certain point they found out that a task force had
been established to catch them because they'd been at it for so, so long. And
when Andre--this is Allan Hayle, the only surviving member of the Stander gang
who's still in prison in South Africa and my very, very best contact for all
of these stories. But he told me that they were reading the newspaper about
the task force and saw a photo of the building, and Andre leaned into the
photo and he said, `I know this building.' And right next door was, in fact,
a bank which they decided to rob. So they robbed a bank in the same building
as their very own task force.

DAVIES: And got away with it?

Ms. HUGHES: Oh, yes, yes. Yeah.

DAVIES: There's some suggestion in the film which you've made that at least
some of the money he took went to the poor. I mean, I think the first job he
drops a packet of bills on a black kid selling newspapers on the street. Is
there any evidence that he was sort of a Robin Hood character?

Ms. HUGHES: (Laughs) Well, in fact, some people thought that that's the film
they were in for, but we don't really have that sense. And, in fact, if you
watch Thomas' performance--Thomas Jane, who's playing Andre Stander in the
film--his performance in that is more or less to discard of this filthy money
that has come of this radical thing he's just done. It's not so much that he
seeks out a needy person and lays it on the young newspaper boy in an act of
grand charity, nor does he give it away after that moment. He spends it.
It's not so much--I don't believe he was a pro-black person, or I don't
believe that his upset was really about the inequality so much as the idea
that he, himself, would be demanded something so outrageous, something so
compromising to his own moral barometer, his own moral sense and he would have
no say in the matter. I think it really began in the ego place less than, `I
shall right the wrongs of the haves and have nots,' you know. So it's not a
Robin Hood story so much.

DAVIES: I read of a couple of Associated Press accounts of Andre Stander that
were written in the '80s. And they seemed to indicated that he was just a
bank robber; that he lived a very flamboyant lifestyle, but that his father
said that he was motivated by the pain he'd experienced as a riot cop in black
townships.

Ms. HUGHES: Well, like I said, that would be an evidence of the press owned
by the government. He was made to look bad by all of his exploits. So I
would consider that one of the classically slanted reports, although at the
same time I'm not saying the man was a saint at all. He enjoyed spending the
money, finally. And I do believe he was driven in later years by the infamy,
the fame and the idea that he could live a lifestyle that as a hardworking cop
in South Africa, he wouldn't even come close to. So, I mean, his ego was very
much a part of it. However, I do think the father has grounds in what he said
based on what Allan Hayle has told me in their long discussions in prison.

DAVIES: Allan Hayle being the surviving member of the gang, right? Yeah.

Ms. HUGHES: Yes...

DAVIES: Yeah.

Ms. HUGHES: ...exactly, the only one of the Stander gang still alive. And,
actually, it was a coup for me to find that Allan was still there. In all
these years of people trying to tell the story, no one had gone to speak to
him.

DAVIES: Why do you think he spoke to you?

Ms. HUGHES: Well, he didn't want to speak to me. In the first place, you
know, I had to kind of work my way into the prison by less-than-overt means.
The doors of the prison system in South Africa don't fly open to you when you
announce that Hollywood is calling. You know, it's, like, you will be shut
out before they'd be letting you in, you know. But I managed to meet him as a
sort of, you know, legal consultation sort of legitimate--you know, that's the
kind of meeting that you can have. And he was reluctant because everything
that had ever been written about him talked about what a thug he was, what a
brute, how they were just greedy and violent. And yet there was nothing known
about his political leanings and the fact that he has two degrees and the fact
that his disgust with the system that was--what he told me once was that, as a
student of the teacher college, he was taught every day that he was the chosen
people. And it didn't sit well with him to the point where he wouldn't go
anymore and neglected...

DAVIES: This is Allan Hayle you're talking about, not Stander...

Ms. HUGHES: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...but Allan Hayle. The two have...

Ms. HUGHES: No, not Stander. This is Allan. Allan finally sensed, I guess,
the sincerity of my questions in the fact that I'd done enough firsthand
research to not be believing the things I'd read in the press, and he started
to open up to me. And he recounted for me everything that a director or a
performer trying to, you know, embody these characters would need to know in
so, so many ways: how they did it; what they said while they were doing it;
what the bank tellers said to them while they were being robbed; the political
thinking behind it; the adrenaline pump--the sheer rush of robbing banks, five
in a row, and getting away with it; and then the wave of abject fear that came
over them at the end of a day when it hits you what you've really done as well
as the sinking feeling, the sort of hollowness that comes when you realize
you've crossed a line and there's no turning back, and your life can only be
on a downward spiral. And all of these things, you know, were in both of
them, I think, through the years of robbing banks. So, you know, he was
really in the mode of confession when I met him.

DAVIES: It's incredible, yeah.

Ms. HUGHES: Yeah.

DAVIES: Were they a violent group?

Ms. HUGHES: Their mission was to rob banks invisibly, or at least their
style, their MO, was to go in and out of a bank and rob it before anybody even
realized there had been a robbery. In fact, on occasions there would be the
guard holding the door for them on the way out, `Thank you very much,
gentlemen,' which we have in the film once or twice. So, you know, they have
loaded weapons; that makes it a violent crime. But their goal was not to hurt
people, was not to shoot people. Really, that was their interest. It did,
however, start to go wrong. A woman was shot in a gun shop robbery, which is
in the film actually. And at that moment they lost a lot of popular support
and never quite recovered.

DAVIES: In the case of the woman, she pulled a weapon on them, right, and
then they fired in self-defense, so to speak?

Ms. HUGHES: Well, out of self--you know, they all had loaded weapons out,
but, yes, she pulled the gun from under the counter. It was a gun shop, you
know, so inevitably there'll be guns.

DAVIES: Tell...

Ms. HUGHES: She was shot in the shoulder, and the quote when she was
interviewed, she said something like, `Andre Stander has very nice legs.'

DAVIES: No, really?

Ms. HUGHES: So clearly a charmer.

DAVIES: After she was shot?

Ms. HUGHES: Yeah. There was an interview with her. `What do you remember
about Andre Stander, Ma'am?' `I remember he has very nice legs.' So, you
know, he was a charmer.

DAVIES: There was a third character in the Stander gang, who ultimately was
killed in a shootout with police, I gather.

Ms. HUGHES: That's right, Lee McCall.

DAVIES: Was he the one involved in the shootout with the woman?

Ms. HUGHES: Yeah. Lee McCall was the loose cannon of the three. Lee had
not meant to stick around with the gang after the escape from prison. He was
kind of necessary to them in that in the escape they would have never have let
Stander and Hayle go off the prison site together because they were
always--you know, they were hanging around, and they would have suspected
something. So they needed someone unsuspectable, like Lee McCall--if that's a
word--to complete the escape, which he did. And the idea was they would all
go--or he would go his separate way after the escape.

However, he was such a lost dog, like a loyal dog sort of thing, that he never
sort of disappeared. And I don't know if they felt sorry for him or what, but
he just kept hanging around and ended up with them, you know, game for
anything that they could invent, any kind of ante they could up and ended up
robbing banks with them all along. But he would constantly do things that
would jeopardize them, like wear loud and flashy clothes that were not exactly
invisible in a bank robbery. You know, this is--with his rash behavior,
certain things started to go wrong, which put an end to the spree, really.

DAVIES: You said you spoke to many people who knew Andre Stander firsthand.
Just give us a little bit of a sense of what some of them said to you about
him.

Ms. HUGHES: The funny thing about researching with people who say they know
Andre Stander was that every person I met described someone radically
different. So I would talk to someone who was on the drug squad with him, and
they would talk about how, you know, he could become a hippie. And then the
next person I would meet would describe how he was such a sophisticated host
and had the best wine collection of anyone in the whole South African police
force. And then the next person I'd met would talk about how he used to go
whoring in Swaziland, you know. So--and there's funny stories, like the rugby
team from South Africa was staying in a hotel in Durban. And he went to this
hotel where they were all in the bar with some lovely ladies, and he asked the
star player of the team to borrow his jacket. And he put on this guy's
jacket, which, of course, has his name on it, and convinced some girl in the
bar that he was that star player and got laid.

So not a saint by any means, but the point was everybody described a character
that was not the same loving husband of the last description. And I thought,
`Well, these people are either all lying, or there's something going on here.'
And ultimately I realized that Andre Stander was all of those things, and that
was the key to his character. And our characterization is what we aimed for,
the ultimate chameleon. He could be whoever he needed to be in any given
situation.

DAVIES: My guest is filmmaker Bronwen Hughes. Her latest film is "Stander."
We'll talk some more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're back with filmmaker Bronwen Hughes. Her latest film is
"Stander." It's about Andre Stander, who was a South African police captain
who eventually left the force and started robbing banks back in the '70s and
'80s.

Well, Bronwen Hughes, one of the most remarkable scenes in this movie and a
pivotal one is the confrontation between South African police and angry
protesters in Tembisa. Tell us about staging that scene.

Ms. HUGHES: Well, the Tembisa riot scene was, from the first time I read the
script, the most daunting and also delicious prospect for a filmmaker in the
entire script. There was an enormous weight on it, creative weight in that if
you didn't feel anything for Andre Stander in that moment, in that time, you
wouldn't care what he did for the rest of the two hours of the film. Second
of all, productionwise, it was enormous. We had production meetings that
treated it like a film within a film, really. They don't have movie dogs in
South Africa; they have attack dogs. So if we're staging a dog attack, you
know, there isn't the kind of guarantee that you normally have that everything
will go right.

And one of the amazing things about the scene was that we were asking these
people, 1,300 South Africans, to re-enact their very recent, very emotional
and very raw and painful history on one side of the line or the other: either
the township people, the black people on the crew, or the township people who
I was interviewing to gather their stories and gather their experiences, or
even the white kids that had been on their mandatory military service, like a
pimply faced teen-ager holding a gun and not really knowing what to do with
himself faced by a mob like that, you know. So we were saying, `OK, now do
this for the movie camera.' And, you know, there were security concerns:
`Would it go off? Would the emotions take over?' In fact, the fear of that
was unfounded. This was the most committed, most energetic, most realistic
group of extras I've ever worked with. It was amazing. And the emotional
swell of re-enacting the toi tois, where they do the protest songs, had the
crew with wet eyes. It was just like nothing I've ever experienced.

DAVIES: The actual clash, the violent clash, between the protesters and the
police is preceded by this period of awkward tension, at which they actually
look into each other's eyes and try and figure out what's going to happen, how
they should react. I thought that was an interesting approach to sort of
prolong that period.

Ms. HUGHES: Oh, good. Well, one thing I decided from the very beginning with
this riot scene was I didn't want to make it a montage of generic chaos.
There's some very good films that have riot scenes in them, but I've always
found that you couldn't really connect with the human experience of them
because you just saw destruction, and you kind of grow numb to it.

So one thing that happened was that with this researcher's finds, this
footage, old film footage, some video footage from the '80s that has not been
seen by most South Africans 'cause it would have never been on TV--clips of it
now can be seen in the Apartheid Museum, but that's the most, I think, that's
been out there. I would get to watch the raw footage of the events. I would
get to see the event unfold and disintegrate and feel the rhythms of what that
was. And the thing that I was most struck by is that the tension for me was
in the moments when neither side knew what the other was going to do. As the
years went by, certain patterns started to be expected, the way the
confrontation would begin and how they would disintegrate. But in these early
years, when the film takes place, there was no real system, there was no real
idea on what might happen. And I think most of the young students wouldn't
have even suspected that they were, you know, going to be faced with
something--with live rounds of ammunition, for example.

So when these videotapes had the pauses between watershed events, like the
first stone thrown or the dog first launched or the first sniper bullet,
that's when I felt, `Oh, my God.' My heart rate was pumping, not knowing what
was going to happen next. And I thought, `If we can capture anything like
that, we would have something very visceral.'

DAVIES: I think one of the things that I found compelling was after he has
this shattering experience doing riot control work, his wife comes upon him
standing naked, with stereo headphones on, in his house dancing wildly to
music.

Ms. HUGHES: Yeah.

DAVIES: We see a guy kind of coming unhinged, don't we?

Ms. HUGHES: Yeah, that was--you know, when you dramatize something like that,
of course, it's a longish process. But you have to find these clues, these
ways in to seeing what he's going through, his emotional state. And the idea
that he would be just naked and thrashing about in the living room, as if
trying to forget the world, seemed to be a good way to do that. And that's
exactly what his wife comes across. And she's much more together than him at
that time in the story, and that was Thomas throwing himself, body and soul,
into the role. I can't tell you what an actor he is to do things like that.

DAVIES: You mentioned that you interviewed Allan Hayle, the last surviving
member of the Stander gang. You interviewed him in prison. What is his fate?

Ms. HUGHES: Well, Allan is serving a 33-year sentence in Krugersdorp prison
outside Johannesburg. And, really, meeting him, I was very, very impressed.
I thought I was going to meet a thug, which is what I'd read about, you know,
in the media. But he turned out to be a very deep-thinking man who's spent
the last 20 years in prison in self-examination, basically, trying to come to
terms with the angry young man he once was and come out the other side. I
don't know how you survive, so far, two decades of lock-up at two in the
afternoon, only to be opened at 7 AM, with no books allowed to be brought in,
no films, you know, no movies, no television. They are allowed so, so few
privileges there. And yet he is still so dignified--I guess is the best word.
His advisers and his psychologists all recommend his release, but somehow,
with violent crime being such a problem in South Africa right now, they can't
really see fit to release him on parole, which is due by now.

DAVIES: Well, Bronwen Hughes, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms. HUGHES: Thank you very much.

DAVIES: Director Bronwen Hughes. Her new film is called "Stander."

Coming up, Milo Miles on a new box-set retrospective of the British rock group
Faces. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Faces' box set "Five Guys Walk into a Bar"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

They were called by many the greatest rock 'n' roll party band ever. The
group Faces was formed in 1969 when members of the mod rock band Small Faces
and the Jeff Beck Group got together. The British troupe frequently toured
America. Although some members of Faces achieved fame on their own, the group
itself remains relatively unknown. But a new box set could change that.
Music critic Milo Miles has a review.

(Soundbite of song)

FACES: (Singing) Well, well, hello. And how are you? Fancy seeing you here.
Don't let it show. No, no, no one must know. Why, they're playing tracks in
my tears. Just pretend it's all over, like you have for so long. I thought
time was a healer, but I guess I was wrong. I am to blame.

MILO MILES reporting:

You know Faces even if you've never heard the band. The drummer, Kenny Jones,
had the thankless but exciting job of trying to replace the whirlwind Keith
Moon in The Who. The guitarist Ron Wood has been the only person to hang on
as second picker for the Rolling Stones. And the singer, this Rod Stewart
guy, didn't he have a hit, "Do You Think I'm Sexy?" Yeah. The bassist was
Ronnie Lane, probably the finest overlooked player and songwriter of the
first generation of British rockers. Finally, the keyboardists, Ian McLagan,
is a hugely respected session man, though one of his finest achievements of
late is putting together the Faces box set, "Five Guys Walk into a Bar."

The song "Stay With Me" was their only hit in the US, but Faces' real
accomplishment was perfecting rock 'n' roll party ambiance.

(Soundbite of song)

FACES: (Singing) In the morning don't say you love me 'cause I'll only kick
you out of the door. I know your name is Rita 'cause your perfume's smelling
sweeter since when I saw you down on the floor. Guitar. You won't need too
much persuading. I don't...

MILES: At the start, as McLagan says, they had no direction, just influences.
They sounded most like the Rolling Stones. But like all the midperiod Stones
albums played together--blues, soul, folk and pure rock--the secret was to be
as offhand as possible and on target just enough, particularly in concert.
Faces literally set up a bar on stage and quaffed drinks throughout the show.
But it was more of a prop than sodden legend would have it.

A Faces performance was part circus, part cabaret, part sock-hop and, yes,
part pub crawl. The four LPs released in the band's lifetime mostly wobbled
all over the place. Not this box. With brilliant programming of live shots,
vivid rehearsals and their best studio work, McLagan keeps four CDs rolling
along the edge of lunacy without falling off. He displays a group whose feel
for each other perfectly matched their feel for the diverse material.

(Soundbite of music)

FACES: Get down.

(Soundbite of music)

FACES: (Singing) Judy, she was a cutie. She never give the (unintelligible)
away. Whoo!

(Soundbite of music)

FACES: Hey!

(Soundbite of music)

MILES: Best of all, "Five Guys Walk into a Bar" solves the Rod Stewart
problem. Here at last is a Faces set where he sounds like a terrific
gregarious front-man rather than a superstar stuck with some mates in the off
hours. Ron Wood gets a proper showcase for his spiky slide guitar. And most
important, those who don't know him will get to meet Ronnie Lane, the big
sensitive heart of Faces.

Because he wasn't much of a vocalist, Lane didn't get to sing enough of his
own songs, and he came to feel they weren't featured enough, period. As
opposed to the preening, pouting studs and revelers in most Faces songs,
Lane's characters are British every folk. He presents guys that are sly,
vulnerable, escape-artist lovers and generous ruffians. Faces' pub would have
been a bleak place without Lane, and he deserves to be better known. If I had
to pick a hit Faces never had but should have, it would be Lane's "Ooh La La."

(Soundbite of song)

FACES: (Singing) Poor old grandad, I laughed at all his words. I thought he
was a bitter man. He spoke of women's ways. They trap you, then they use you
before you even know. But love is blind, and you're far too kind. Don't ever
let it show. I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger. I wish
that I knew what I know now when I was stronger. The can...

MILES: The "Five Guys Walk into a Bar" box includes testimonials from '70s
punks and modern rock bands. But Faces should be recognized not for who they
influenced but for themselves and as another wonderful example of how American
roots music and British theatrical flare enriched each other.

DAVIES: Milo Miles is a contributing writer to Rolling Stone. He reviewed
"Five Guys Walk into a Bar," the new retrospective box set by the British
group Faces, produced by Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan.

I recently spoke with Ian McLagan. We'll feature that interview next week on
FRESH AIR. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

08:34

'Searching in Grenoble' showcases the unique style of jazz pianist Mal Waldron

Nobody sounds like Waldron, a fact proved by a new 2-CD recording the artist made during a 1978 solo concert. Searching in Grenoble is a good introduction to the pianist's compelling sound.

41:50

Remembering Hilary Mantel, Booker Prize-winning author of the 'Wolf Hall' saga

The British writer, who died Sept. 22, wrote a trilogy of critically acclaimed historical novels on the life of Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry VIII's most trusted advisors. Originally broadcast in '12.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue