In July 2007, I'd seen a Vanity Fair article about HIV/AIDS treatment in Africa, and was moved and inspired by the transformations described in Alex Shoumatoff's story The Lazarus Effect.
Two years and many conversations later, I was on a plane to Zambia to help (RED) portray on film the stunning transformation that antiretroviral medications can bring to people and their communities. Last year, I spent parts of May, August, September, and December in Zambia documenting this effect through the experience of four people with HIV: Connie, Concillia, Paul and Bwalya.
I became involved in The Lazarus Effect through Spike Jonze who is the film's executive producer. Spike and I have often worked together and we were just finishing up another film for HBO about Maurice Sendak called 'Tell Them Anything You Want.' I dropped what I was working on, boarded a plane for Zambia and started shooting as soon as we hit the ground
As a filmmaker, the clear difference in people going from being near death to looking much healthier was a fascinating visual and emotional structure for a film. On a more personal level, I had lost friends over the years to AIDS and AIDS related illnesses and have had a core internal connection to the issue. I've watched friends waste away and wither to death, this was a chance to see people go the opposite direction in a glorious way.
Becoming familiar with how people lived soon made me even more impressed with how resilient they were -- adhering to the precise schedule of taking ARV medication at specific times of day and not missing doses -- especially for those living in challenging circumstances.
I wanted to make a film that has my personal aesthetic but that presents people living with HIV in Africa speaking for themselves, without outside voices commenting on them, and to spend time with them portraying firsthand the radical difference that it makes having access to inexpensive ARV treatment. It works; people who were in mortal jeopardy are alive because of it.
Take for example the story of Connie Mudenda, one of the film's subjects. She's an incredible force in her community and is alive only because of access to drugs that cost 40 cents a day per patient. She had lost all three of her children to AIDS before ARV treatment was available. Since beginning treatment herself, she has become an HIV Peer Education Supervisor, overseeing the "resurrections" of countless patients.
I came away from the experience of making this film believing that universal access to medication should be a basic human right. AIDS is preventable and treatable but it has killed over 20 million people in Africa because medication wasn't available (that's more than the population of Australia). Today, more than 3 million people have been put on lifesaving medications--up from 50,000 people in 2002--that's a pretty amazing achievement. But, four thousand people still die in Africa each day from AIDS and for as little as 40 cents a day a person can be put on medication and their lives, and that of their community, can be transformed. I hope viewers come away feeling that the provision of treatment is worth continuing and expanding.
The Lazarus Effect will premiere on HBO in the US on May 24th at 9 pm.