Movie Review: Doin’ My Drugs

While Covid-19 has grabbed the world’s attention, we’re still faced with many other crippling diseases. As Richard Mulholland once pointed out, many of these continue to be widespread problems but slip into the background when they stop trending in the media. While HIV and AIDS have received extensive publicity in the media and across pop culture, misinformation and misconceptions are still preventing people from getting tested and treatment. This is especially true in Zambia, an African nation where an estimated 14% of the population is infected with many others too afraid to find out their status.

Zambian-born musician, Thomas Buttenschøn, was born HIV+ and relocated to Denmark to receive treatment in 1985 at a time when there was still much uncertainty about the virus. His mother returned home to Zambia where she died before Buttenschøn was 10 years old. His father succumbed not long after, leaving the youngster in the care of his foster parents. Having nurtured his musical talents, the singer, songwriter and guitarist made a success of himself in spite of his early setbacks. Taking antiretrovirals, he was able to lead a normal life – marrying his sweetheart and becoming father to two healthy kids.

Buttenschøn has a vague recollection of his parents but felt a calling to return to his birthplace on a mission to make peace with his past, visit his extended family and shatter the stigma around the virus and ARVs. Tyler Q. Rosen’s Doin’ My Drugs documents this expedition of healing, self-discovery and Buttenschøn’s desire to use his unique musical talents in a bid to educate and empower Zambians and by extension the people of Africa. His music has always been geared towards entertainment with a purpose. They say music has the power to heal and he took it one step further, launching a musical revolution with the help of local musical artists.

thomas buttenschon

“We need to talk.”

Wild misconceptions, ostracisation and fear have created a situation where citizens would rather live in ignorance than know their HIV status in Zambia. It’s not a localised issue, but Buttenschøn decided it would be his starting point in light of its personal significance. Having been born HIV+, Buttenschøn is a living example of someone who has made a success of their life into their 30s with the help of antiretroviral drugs.

The title Doin’ My Drugs starts to make more sense as this earnest and emotive film builds into something special. While it starts off slowly with a wide spectrum, the pieces quickly come together as the main thrust of this documentary is realised through Buttenschøn’s music and collaborations with local artists. Using old family photos and footage, we get honest and intimate insights into this character portrait, which serves as a launchpad into this important awareness and love-in-action initiative. Those unfamiliar with the musician get a quick overview of his music, which is extrapolated through solo and collaborative performances peppered throughout the documentary.

Doin’ My Drugs is self-funded and its modest guerilla shooting style feeds into its raw, honest and intimate mood. Capturing some priceless moments that have a spontaneity and genuine warmth, it’s a celebration of musical gifts that spills into a heartfelt and broader awareness campaign. Keeping an upbeat feel, the quick pacing supports this emotional resonance through Buttenschøn’s life story and his collaborations as the musician unfurls his big idea for Zambia. As a spiritual guide, the love-in-action is inspiring and it’s a joy to meet so many wonderful and committed music activists such as John Chiti and Maiko Zulu, who are on a similar mission.

The bottom line: Uplifting