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Using a Guggenheim to Get Back to Africa

Filmmaker Sam Kauffmann will revisit Uganda and children with HIV/AIDS

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Click on the video above to view an excerpt from the film Living with Slim: Kids Talk About HIV/AIDS. (Below) Sam Kauffmann, a COM film professor, plans to use his Guggenheim fellowship to return to Africa to make a follow-up to his award-winning film Living with Slim.

Sam Kauffmann, a professor of film at the College of Communication, has been awarded a 2009 Guggenheim fellowship. The Guggenheim recognizes “stellar achievement and exceptional promise for continued accomplishment,” according to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

For three decades, Kauffmann has been creating films that deal with issues ranging from racism to genocide. His work has aired on the PBS series P.O.V. and won awards at festivals such as Seattle, Hot Springs, Media That Matters, Amnesty International, San Francisco, Slamdance, and the Africa World Documentary Festival.

In 2004, Kauffmann received a Fulbright scholarship to teach at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, as well as create the documentary Living with Slim: Kids Talk About HIV/AIDS. That film follows seven HIV-positive Ugandan children who reflect on their experiences dealing with the disease. With support from the Guggenheim, Kauffmann plans to travel to Uganda this summer to create a follow-up to Living with Slim.

BU Today: How did you develop the idea for Living with Slim: Kids Talk About HIV/AIDS?
Kauffmann:
When I received a Fulbright award to work in Uganda, it involved making a film. Since I was going to the epicenter of the AIDS crisis in Africa, it seemed necessary to create a film about HIV/AIDS.

There were scores of films about adults who had AIDS, but the whole picture of what AIDS has meant to children had not been explored.

Back in the ’90s, I had been contacted by a representative of Vice President Al Gore about creating Show Your Love, a film about the relationship children have with their fathers. It became a popular film, and it’s still used all over America and by prisons and the armed services. I realized in creating that film how unbelievably moving kids can be. You know, we talk to kids. We talk about kids. But how often do we listen to kids when they’re dealing with issues like that?

So I came up with the idea of creating a film by interviewing children with HIV/AIDS. I interviewed about 30 kids, and then picked 7 to highlight. Besides the interviews, I filmed the seven kids in their homes and community.

How did you find the children?
Because I had a Fulbright and I was teaching at Makerere University, I had credibility in the community. Makerere University has a medical school that’s connected to the largest hospital in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. So it was not difficult for me to talk to the hospital administration.

The associate dean of the medical school liked the idea, so he paved the way for me to meet some physicians. I found a pediatric nurse who worked with a lot of the kids I eventually interviewed. She provided me with letters written by the kids about what was going on in their lives, so I could understand what they were going through. That made it very easy for me to come up with questions they would respond to. I hired her to be my associate producer and ask the children the questions. She hadn’t done it before, but she spoke Swahili and Luganda, so she was able to interview the kids. We worked really well together.

Was it difficult to get children to participate in the film?
The interesting thing was how many kids wanted to be in the film. But of course they needed their guardians’ permission. The kids who weren’t able to get permission were crushed, because they really saw this as their legacy, a way of breaking down some of the stereotypes associated with HIV/AIDS.

Have you used the film to educate about the disease?
Hundreds of organizations all over the world use the film in different ways for training their members for fundraising. Former President Bill Clinton was at a London fundraiser where the film was screened, and over $1 million was raised that night.

The film has put a human face on the AIDS pandemic. And I knew that by using kids, I would be drawing in people in a way that is difficult to accomplish with adults.

How are the children in the film today?
That’s why I was excited about receiving the Guggenheim fellowship. I am going to be able to go back to Uganda and document how the children are doing five years after the first film.

I have stayed in touch with some of the kids. Unfortunately, one died about six months after I shot the film. But the six survivors are on antiretroviral drugs. They’re doing very well. Some of them are 18 years old, dealing with boyfriends or girlfriends, jobs, and school. So it will be interesting to see how the issues have changed, and yet what has stayed the same.

Some of the children are quite poor, so the only contact I have is through the nurses and the caretakers who are following their health. I’m eager to go there and put this all together.

Has the film helped the children?
There’s one boy in the film, Kizza, who was six. When I interviewed him, I could tell there were things troubling him about what was going on at home. When I went to where he lived, I filmed disturbing interactions between him and his aunt, who is his guardian. On camera she’s yelling at him and threatening to beat him.

Before I left Uganda, I showed that footage to some of the health-care providers, and they were shocked this was going on. So the very next time Kizza came into the clinic with his aunt, they sat her down and said, “We know what’s going on. You need counseling.” And so they arranged for counseling. Her relationship with Kizza is much better now.

Many people were moved by Kizza, and as a result World Vision put him in their program for special medical and food attention. I have a picture of him that was sent during the semester break that shows a healthy 11-year-old boy. I’m anxious to see him again.

What are your plans for distributing the follow-up to Living with Slim?
The tricky thing is how to incorporate material from the first film into the second film. And the question is, do I make another short film, or do I make a feature-length film? I think you have to put the earlier part in, so people who haven’t seen it have a reference. My challenge will be to do that in an artistic and compelling way, so it draws in the viewer who has seen Living with Slim, but also draws in the viewer who hasn’t seen it.

I think there will be a lot of interest from organizations that already use the first film. And I hope to screen through the PBS documentary series P.O.V., the Sundance Channel, and the Independent Film Channel. I’ll be looking at a lot of different outlets.

What does it mean to receive a Guggenheim fellowship?
I’m humbled, because there are thousands of great filmmakers who have never received this award. When you look at the people who have received Guggenheim fellowships, the honor becomes apparent. I think over 100 people who have received Guggenheim fellowships have gone on to receive Nobel Prizes. And here at Boston University, both Robert Pinsky and Derek Wolcott are recipients.

I ask myself, why did they pick me over all these terrific people? I think it’s because my films are useful to people — not just entertainment. They have the potential to impact public policy.

I feel fortunate that I’ll always have the honor of the award. And I’m grateful to have financial support to make this film.

What lessons have you learned about filmmaking?
Making a film is really hard, whether it’s a student short film, an independent film, or a Hollywood studio film. If you’re going to spend that much time and energy and worry and obsession over something, it might as well be worth the time and trouble. So why not try something that deals with an issue people really care about?

The last two films I’ve made, Living with Slim and Massacre at Murambi, have been gut-wrenching — one about AIDS in Uganda, the other about genocide in Rwanda.

With Living with Slim, I was able to set up a fund for the kids who were in the film and others too. And through the generosity of people who have watched the film, we’ve donated more than $10,000 to those kids to pay for school fees and other essentials.

That we can give back to the subjects, rather than just showcase them, is a real bonus.

Has the film influenced the pharmaceutical industry to lower the cost of ARV drugs?
The greatest impact on the pharmaceutical companies has been what Bill Clinton has done to convince them to lower rates. His organization uses Living with Slim, but it’s hard to quantify what part it plays.

What impact will the Guggenheim have on your career?
The thing about a project like this is that there are no guarantees. I envision that the film will be a success — that people will want to see it and that it’s going to come together. But when you’re sitting here in Boston contemplating going to Uganda during the summer, reconnecting with the children from Slim, shooting the film, then editing the footage, there are a lot of hurdles to get over. So right now it’s hard to look past simply completing the film.

What’s the Guggenheim going to do for me? It’s hard to think about right now. But having that award on my résumé is an affirmation. It’s certainly going to help when I’m applying for additional grants, because people will say, “If they think he’s worthy, he must be.”

Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.

1 Comments

One Comment on Using a Guggenheim to Get Back to Africa

  • Sharon Daniels on 04.24.2009 at 12:19 pm

    HIV story

    I recently viewed both Living with Slim and Massacre at Murambi. Thank you for bringing this very important contribution to the attention of the BU community. My appreciation to Professor Kauffmann for his fine work in tough areas, and congratulations for yet another Guggenheim.

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