Good news can occasionally be a harder sell than bad news. When HBO Documentary Films and the Global Fund’s private sector fundraising arm (RED) wanted to make a short documentary showing the restorative effects of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) for those living with HIV/AIDS to bolster fundraising efforts for HIV/AIDS treatment in Africa, they had to find a filmmaker who would cut through public apathy around the subject.
The producers approached Los Angeles-based commercial production company Anonymous Content who in turn pitched the idea to marquee-name directors David Fincher and Spike Jonze.
Unaware of the good news story around ARVs, Jonze was captivated by a series of photos producers presented him showing before-and-after images of HIV/AIDS patients that had started the medication.
‘For some reason I never connected Magic Johnson being alive to actually being able to save lives in Africa,’ Jonze admits, saying he also had the notion that AIDS in Africa was a hopelessly overwhelming issue, ‘but not because I’d ever been there or knew anything about it.’
Jonze wanted to take part but was in the midst of post-production on the feature Where The Wild Things Are, so he opted to executive produce and asked Lance Bangs, with whom he co-directed the Maurice Sendak doc Tell Them Anything You Want, to direct.
The resulting film, The Lazarus Effect, is a 30-minute documentary about a group of HIV-positive Zambians whose lives are transformed by ARVs. It’s also part of a larger (RED) awareness campaign around how access to ARVs can bring sufferers in Africa back from the brink of death – hence the title.
It premiered in the US on HBO and in the UK on Channel 4 in May, but its producers are hoping to give it a wider platform by offering broadcasters around the world the chance to air it for free on World AIDS Day on Dec. 1 (for more information contact (RED) distribution rep Anne Vicente via YouTube.
Jonze calls Bangs ‘the opposite of a Michael Moore-style documentarian,’ meaning he’s a filmmaker with a knack for blending in to his surroundings. ‘He’s like this one man army,’ he says. ‘When you see him he’s traveling with two roll-on bags, a tripod case loaded with camera equipment, sound equipment, lights. He really can go anywhere and shoot anything.’
Bangs flew to Zambia three times over the course of 2009 and found 12 people willing to talk about their lives. He filmed them at their lowest points, prior to starting the meds, and returned to document their transformations. From the initial group of 12, Bangs and (RED) chose four people to focus the film around, including the tenacious peer educator Constance Mudenda and a determined 12-year-old girl, Bwalya Liteta, who looks much younger at the start of the film.
‘There’s still a stigma attached to being HIV positive,’ says Erin Heath, director of partnerships and marketing for (RED) International. ‘You have to be really careful about the people that you identify, how you film them and the way you represent them.’
The filmmakers crafted the film around interviews with their four subjects, allowing each character to tell their stories and drive the narrative. Bangs shot on handheld at eye level and worked with natural lighting conditions in the locations. It was also important for the director to include playful and lighthearted moments to show the characters’ lives outside their illnesses.
‘The little girl Bwalya gets bonked in the head playing a game throwing a ball around,’ he says. ‘I think most people would’ve felt, ‘Oh, that’s awkward, don’t put that in there’ or whatever. Those human moments are the parts that interested us.’
In all, the shoot was an emotional one for Bangs. Each trip he’d return and see how the ARVs had improved one of his characters’ quality of life. In other cases, he’d be faced with the grim realities of the disease. In August, (RED) announced that the 12-year-old girl featured in the film, Bwalya Liteta, had passed away from heart failure.
‘The first couple of deaths or losses that happened along the course of making the film were incredibly intense things as a filmmaker to deal with,’ he says. ‘How do you make a story that doesn’t whitewash, sugar-coat or ignore the realities of the losses that are still going on, and yet is still an honest and engaging film?’
Bangs is working on a short piece to update viewers on the characters a year after he made his final visit to Zambia on World AIDS Day in 2009. The Lazarus Effect will air again on World AIDS Day this year in global markets, including the US, the UK, Brazil, India, Belgium and Italy.