May 20, 2015 / Perspective, The Sundance Issue
What united many of the films at Sundance this year? The same story that unites us all.
August 8, 2005
People have asked if it was difficult to take a film crew to Kenya to film a documentary dealing with the pandemic of AIDS and the seemingly ineffectual efforts of a handful of people to stem the tide of affliction and disease. Our documentary, Scratching the Surface; A Journey with HEART, deals primarily with the efforts of a handful of volunteers who travel to Kenya to teach the nationals about health education, the curtailing of AIDS, and how to protect them from the further destruction of a nation. Going was surprisingly far less difficult than I thought it would be. In fact, the most difficult obstacle to deal with was the loss of my journal. If I had it, I’d be able to simply recount some of the thoughts pouring through me as I journeyed along for the two and a half weeks of my stay. I say pouring because it’s really like that—you’re either a sieve or a sponge when faced with a reality in such stark contrast to your own. The walls go up or they come down. There’s really no middle ground. I have one email I sent to my wife and friends back home, one email that comes close to recapturing where I was during my stay:
Words fail. That whole thing about the spirit moaning a language only God understands? My soul is overwhelmed right now. I can’t articulate properly the orphanage in the slums. I can’t really paint a picture that does it any form of justice–because there is no justice there. But God gives. I see children more alive than any adult I know. I see such wonder, awe and joy–such simple recognizable treasure housed within the vault of every child’s heart, and in a situation where one would think every coin, every sparkling gem might have been stolen– Riches. Eyes shining to overflow with the riches of the soul. For the few years they have, they will live. Among the cesspools, the vermin and pests–flowing aglitter beneath the darkness and the rotting shards of humanity, there washes a tide of bright and overflowing love. I touched them. I touched their heads, their hands–I stooped to meet them eye to eye and gave all I could: a smile. A moment. A nod. A voice in a language they did not speak but understood. And then I had to go. I had to walk along the rime of sewage, stepping gingerly over and through their wasteland. To creep sideways along the narrow paths between the buildings marked with X, condemned, awaiting doom. To crouch beneath the eaves of steel, to enter darkness with a shameful wave granting assent. To meet the eyes of coal–to see some run, revealing diamonds–or behold the hatred of the damned. Here I am, Lord, sent and standing firmly where I must. Here I am, Lord, beholding jewels we’ve scattered in the dust. Anger doesn’t help, sorrow no good. Just determination to offer something of myself, my soul— As dark as their world is, they have illuminated mine. We have everything at our disposal — everything at the tips of our fingers — and we often live as though we’ve nothing but time. They have nothing but life — when life is everything — and they’ve no time. What can we do, you know? The littlest thing — anything. Anything at all. With all of our heart, even a nod in a language they don’t speak — even this. With all of our heart, it is enough. It is enough to begin something.
It only took a few weeks before I assimilated nicely back into American culture, where I again took up the mantle of fiscal woes, time constraints and social norms, of etiquettes, responsibilities and deadlines. The safely sheltered might be proud to know that in the average time it takes to recoup a Net-30 payment, I had sealed up nearly all the open wounds that so freely flowed to the loving, dying people that I, in my time there, had affected more than I would ever—could ever—know. Nearly all. Fortunately, I am not merely human—I am a man of God. This caveat is my saving grace, my reassurance that no matter how bemired I become in popular culture, I will always have that familiar Voice to remind me of real life, and to help me wake up from this somnambulism I call First World Living. And oftentimes, I don’t even have to ask—I just receive a nudge at the most opportune times, like when I’d rather not think about the state of humanity, or when I’m escaping into some mindless fare such as the most recent blockbuster or a sale at my favorite technology toy store. I miss my journal, because it vividly captured the moment-to-moment of my thoughts in a way that the documentary we shot couldn’t pry open. After all, the world was the subject, not me. I had to step outside myself and behind the lens to remain objective, thinking, always searching for the next poignant shot—and the opportunities never ceased. Africa is rich with life, teeming with life and that more abundantly. The dichotomy of a dying nation leading the way as an example for grace, compassion, and servitude is assuredly the most profound example of irony I have ever witnessed. No filmmaking can truly capture the effect of staring into the eyes of a multitude of laughing, dying children, or the tragic pangs rending the soul as a mother offers her baby up to be taken to America that s/he might have a chance. There is no bridge that can effectively cross the gap we Americans can only conceptualize other than picking up the feet and going. Why Africa? We have our own problems, our own dying and dead—why surrender up our priorities to serve a nation whose fate has been sealed, seemingly by their own negligence? Well, because. Because we know better. They, largely, do not. For all the intelligence of their people, they simply have not been privy to the proper, lifesaving information we take for granted. One cannot be neglectful if they are not provided with an alternative to a pattern of destructive behavior. Oddly, our educational prowess in matters of humanitarian efforts in Africa has until recently instructed no one but the despot governments holding sway there how generous we are; and we certainly can’t congratulate ourselves on our graciousness, in that many who believe they’re solving the problem by a transfer of funds do little to research where monies are disbursed. The people have cast iron stomachs because their leaders had solid gold toilets. We have applied bandages without staunching the flow of blood—and the blood flows freely. We’ve had the ability to stem this tide for years, but have lacked the outward focus to truly negotiate the issues. Until now—and now is far too late for many. We’ve had the means to instigate simple reform for years. We have soap. And toothpaste. And measles/mumps/rubella shots and children’s Tylenol and a spoonful of sugar to help it go down. We have running water, we have 20-minute showers after a bad day, and we let it run until it’s just the right hot or cold because we can afford this Goldilocks mentality. Even the poorest of us can qualify for aid; it just takes some paperwork and a bit of tenacity. Even the most destitute of this country can secure an education. Everyone has a chance. But Africa is far beyond the preventative maintenance stage, and now the world seems to be finally registering the muffled cries from what we, the affluent, have subliminally considered the Dark Continent, the “primitive, savage nation.” And now that the doors are opening, we’re finding that the people, while dark, are neither primitive nor savage, but intelligent, loving, and in dire need of instruction—not merely monies. They require a hand-on, step-out-of-the-comfort-zone embrace with arms unafraid to touch, unafraid to share, and unafraid to open themselves to compassion. Organizations such as HEART truly do Scratch the Surface. But rather than being daunted by the task of resuscitating a nation, there is a renewed vigor with every hand held, every heart touched, and every mind educated. The answer truly lies in our own individual efforts to reach out. To quote a friend of mine in Africa, a doctor, a father, a man devoted to rising and combating the challenge every day of his life:
You say that you have just scratched the surface, but I think you must also bear in mind that when you stir the surface, you have made an impression in someone’s life. And that impression is going to be a long time. You have changed the community. You have changed not only the person them self, but you have changed the community. When they go and teach the communities, it’s one thing you’ll find that has not been done, and I am sure they are touching more than the people whom they are educating, while we are sitting here in the cities and talking about, for example, HIV/AIDS, we think we are succeeding, but when we go in the rural areas we find we have not made an impact on it, because we have not gone there to see the actual needs, what they are needing in those places.
God willing, I’ll be going back to Africa, to do what I can, to gather what information is needed to bring back to us here, in the First World, that perhaps one, two or a handful of people might view and regard as permission to interrupt their daily routine for a time. I pray I’ll return to the faces, the joy, and the willingness to live, to learn, and to love. I pray I will. After all, I say to God, I need to write a new journal.