Ingrid: For outsiders, Africa’s always seemed to be a place that’s ungraspable. I remember when my family left South Africa because of apartheid. We moved to Scotland and my mother would go to the stores and ask them to boycott South African lobsters and oranges. The point back then was to put pressure on the economy so the government would have to end apartheid. The world always said it would never happen. But it did–and the leadership and inspiration of one man, Mandela, meant that the change could occur without a bloodbath. Human beings can do so much. And yet often when the subject of AIDS and Africa comes up, that same sentiment of “it will never end” pops up. Look at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic here and what people rallying around it accomplished in a few years. You and I had a lot of friends in common, like Keith Haring, who we lost. But remember that moment, about 25 years ago, when person after person was getting sick and there was no sense of the light at the end of the tunnel. Eventually it did come, and now unfortunately, the new HIV numbers are dire again in this country, too. But the point is that action helps. Of course, the scale of what we’re talking about in Africa is very different. But ultimately the stories connect. Does it feel to you as if it’s the same disease being fought in Africa as the one that changed all of our lives here in America?
Madonna: [sighs] That’s an interesting question. I guess it’s all the same, because what does it mean–look at the word: “disease.” There was some kind of “dis-ease” here. And there’s some kind of “dis-ease” there. A big part of the AIDS pandemic in Africa is connected to poverty, because there, everything comes from poverty. It’s so eloquently illustrated in the movie by Mathews Chikaonda, the ex-minister of finance, who shows the inhumanity of man to man, what people will do to one another when they don’t have anything else–whether it’s cruelty, or not disclosing that they have a disease, or practicing witchcraft because they’ve come to the end of their rope and don’t have any other solution. There are people dropping like flies there, and they can’t explain it, so for them it must be witchcraft, because how else can you explain that everyone in your village has died? Obviously it’s because somebody put a spell on them. The thing about poverty is you connect the dots and it all leads back to that. Of course, poverty is a problem in America, too, but it’s not the same as in Africa–it’s a different kind of poverty.
Ingrid: And such a different feeling.
Madonna: That’s the other observation I made, because you could say, “Wow, things are really bad in Africa. It’s hopeless. It’s never going to change.” But you get really confused when you go there because there’s so much love and so much joy and such a sense of community–yet people are dropping like flies. And we are over here with access to every kind of medication, and an infrastructure, and people are educated, and everyone’s miserable. So you’re like, “Well, wait a minute. Who do we need to save?”
Madonna: It’s all rather confusing. Ultimately we’re fighting the same disease, but it’s a question of consciousness and where your head is at. And for most people around the world, our heads are up our asses.
Ingrid: At the beginning of the film there’s a moment when you say, “I ended up with much more than I bargained for–about Malawi, about myself, about humanity.” Can you elaborate?
Madonna: Well, first of all, going there thinking I needed to save people and realizing I needed to save myself; that the world I come from is actually full of disease and full of despair and full of unhappiness. Who has it right and who has it wrong and where should I be focusing my energy? And realizing that I cannot, as a mother and as a human being, watch children dying who don’t need to die, or watch them so fearing in a sort of intense way–the kinds of things that you witness in places like Malawi. But on the other hand, it’s helped me took back at myself, at my own life, my own commonity, my friends, the world I live in, and see how broken we are and how we’re all in the same boat–it just looks different.
Ingrid: In the new album, with the song that says, “You’ve only got four minutes to save the world,” you have this other lyric, “Sometime I think what I need is a you intervention.”
Madonna: Yeah, meaning, sometimes think you need to save me. In many ways going to Africa and having the experience had gave me such an incredible outlook and such an appreciation that I didn’t have before I kind of went through it when the whole AIDS thing first hit New York and I was watching my friends drop like flies. Suddenly you go “Oh, my God, life is precious and what are you complaining about? I’m alive.” But you forget. You just forget. We live very comfortable lives and, unfortunately, we have to have our noses rubbed in other people’s pain and suffering to realize how much we have and how much we have to be grateful for, and to tune into this frequency of appreciation. We have to do it on a regular basis.
Ingrid: In 1982, ’83, ’84, in America and in Europe, AIDS changed all of our lives forever. We knew it. And yet it was going on everywhere else, too, of course. But many countries, even continents, were denying it. How terrible that it took so many decades for many people to become conscious of the situation in Africa. Tell me, how did you choose the director for your film?
Madonna: He used to be my gardener [laughs]