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After AIDS, the Perplexing Gift of Life

Sam Kauffmann’s follow-up film about Ugandan children

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Kids Living with Slim, a film by Sam Kauffmann, includes Kizza, at age 6 (left) and 11 (right), one of the children in the film living with HIV/AIDS.

Landing in Uganda last year, Sam Kauffmann wasn’t sure that he’d be able to start the film he set out to create. With help from a Guggenheim fellowship, he wanted a follow-up to his award-winning 2004 documentary Living with Slim: Kids Talk About HIV/AIDS. In that film, seven African children talk about what it’s like to be HIV-positive. Kauffmann had come to Uganda to track down those children and find out how they’re doing today.

“Some of the kids have email,” says Kauffmann (COM’77), a professor of film at the College of Communication, “so it was easy to correspond with them, but finding the others involved some detective work. I would contact one child, and that one would help me find the next. And some of the kids’ caretakers had died, so they had moved in with different families.”

Kauffmann, whose 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, then ran into resistance from administrators at hospitals where the children receive their care. “They thought I was creating a medical research film, and told me I couldn’t reveal the subjects’ identities,” he says. “I had to convince them I was creating a follow-up to the documentary they already use for educational purposes.”

Finally, after a presentation to the medical research board about the documentary’s purpose, he was given the green light to shoot.

BU Today talked to Kauffmann about the challenges and rewards of creating the follow-up film, Kids Living with Slim, which is screening in festivals worldwide.

BU Today: What was it like reuniting with the children?
Kauffmann: In each case, the reunion was different and startling. The first person I saw was Paul. When I first met him, he was a thin and reed-like child, almost on his last legs. He’s turned into a robust, handsome university student.

Prossy was another stick-like child, now a very beautiful woman. But her circumstances have changed, and she lives way outside the capital city in a rural village. It’s been a struggle for her going from the bright lights of the city to helping her aunt generate income by breaking stones all day long

Prossy at age 12 (left) and at age 17 (right).

Juliana had died, so I interviewed her mom. That was difficult, because all her hopes and dreams for her child are gone.

So all the stories and reunions were in a sense bittersweet. The kids are healthier, but they’re older. Their life situations are more complex. It’s not just about survival now, because they’re all on antiretrovirals. It’s about what they are going to make with their lives.

How did the children gain access to antiretroviral drugs?
A lot of it had to do with the first film, Living with Slim: Kids Talk About HIV/AIDS. The minister of health saw it, and he ordered that those kids’ caretakers place them on antiretroviral drugs.

But for Juliana, it was too late. That’s because when there’s a low supply of antiretrovirals, only the patients whose CD4 counts are very low qualify to receive them. So in 2004, when the first film was shot, Juliana was on the borderline to qualify for the drugs. By the time the decision was made to give her the drugs, her body couldn’t handle them. She died six months later.

Being older now, what new challenges are the children facing?
Now that they’re on antiretrovirals, they’re healthy. But they’re not cured. They’re still HIV-positive.

The decisions they have to make—and the places it puts them—are different than when they were 10 or 11. As teenagers and young adults, they’re dealing with boyfriends and girlfriends and contemplating marriage and having children. They have to ask themselves difficult questions: “How do I ask someone to go out with me, and tell them I have HIV/AIDS? Should I adopt or risk having my partner become HIV-positive?”

What were your challenges in making the second film?
Whenever you’re making a film about people who are not adults, it’s difficult to know how much to ask and what’s appropriate to ask. We got into topics like sexuality and partner choices. It was tricky to navigate, so I erred on the side of respect for their privacy.

Often I would go to a school or film them with their friends, and they wouldn’t speak much English, but rather Luganda or Swahili. There were times when I was filming, and I had no idea what I was getting, because I didn’t know what they were talking about.

Sam Kauffmann at a market in Uganda.

How did the kids feel about the film experience?
I found the kids through their caretakers, because I had remained in touch over the years while sending them money that was raised through DVD sales and donations. They’re really appreciative of the support, and of the fact that I didn’t just make the film and then say, “Adios, amigos,” and come back five years later to do it again.

So they’ve been grateful for the money, which has helped them afford school fees, uniforms, and things that can improve their futures.

The one sad thing is that Kizza’s aunt had been taking the money that was given to him and spending it on herself and her kids. The people I had sent the money to, who had been giving it to Kizza’s aunt, weren’t aware of this until I showed up and visited him five years later. I saw that Kizza had no toys. He was wearing a ragged shirt that had as many holes in it as it had fabric, and he was going to a really crummy school. So the truth came out in making the second film.

Kizza no longer lives with his aunt. She left him with an elderly aunt, so he’s much happier and better off.

How are you distributing the film?
I’ve partnered with Keep a Child Alive, a nonprofit cofounded by Alicia Keys that helps those in Africa and India affected by HIV/AIDS. They really like the film, and asked if Alicia could introduce it and use it as part of their website for fundraising. So I’m hoping that Keep a Child Alive, with all of its contacts, will be a great way to get the film out.

Sam Kauffmann with Alicia Keys.

A bunch of organizations used the first film, and I’m starting to send them information and DVDs, so they can use this new one in their work.

One of my other films, Massacre at Murambi, was on P.O.V., so I’m looking to apply Kids Living with Slim to television networks, like P.O.V. and H.B.O., for more national exposure.

Beyond America, I’m trying to get the film out into the world. I’ll be attending and screening the film at the Zanzibar International Film Festival in Tanzania from July 10 to 18. It’s the big film festival in East Africa, and that country borders Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Malawi, and Mozambique. So it’s a very well-situated locale for a festival.

The first film has been used in a lot of African countries, broadcast over 50 times on Malawi television, and was translated into the local languages.

One goal for the film is to use it in Africa to give hope to people and show them what could be their future—that there is a future.

Copies of Kids Living with Slim can be purchased by emailing Sam Kauffmann at samfilmtv@yahoo.com.

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

2 Comments

2 Comments on After AIDS, the Perplexing Gift of Life

  • Anonymous on 07.08.2010 at 7:17 pm

    Follow Up Film - When Can Bostonians See It?

    I saw the first film at a Film Festival in Brookline, MA. When will the follow up film be ready for the Festival circuit, or is it already scheduled for showing in the Boston Area?

  • Shaquille Washington on 02.09.2012 at 9:41 am

    i have no idea what to. i wish i could give my life for these babies and kids to live a full healthy life. i mean i have no idea what it feels like to be living with HIV/AIDs so i cant say i know what they are going through. but my grandmother has been living with HIV for 18 years and i know for a fact she can say she knows what it feels like. but i pray for her her the kids and babies that did not ask for this.

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