When I got a press release announcing that Spike Jonze was the executive producer of The Lazarus Effect, a half hour documentary about AIDS in Africa, I decided to give director Lance Biggs a call to discuss this project further.
How does the New Testament story of Lazarus apply to the AIDS crisis in Africa?
Faith was a very important aspect in the lives of the people that spoke with us in Zambia. The notion of Jesus bringing Lazarus back to health resonated with these people.
Who were the faith-based organizations that you encountered as you were working in the clinics?
The one that I worked with the most was the Churches Health Association of Zambia. They were smart, calm, wonderful, peaceful people.
Why did you choose to film in Zambia?
I made that decision because it was a country that was underrepresented in the West. People hadn't seen much of it in recent years. It's a really fascinating county with 73 tribes. And they've made great progress with the Global Fund on reducing the prevalence of AIDS.
How did you select the subjects you interviewed?
The Global Fund works with a lot of these local clinics, many of whom are faith-based. We would interview people as they came into the clinic. I wanted to focus on the people who were going through this disease. So for me, to add an outside commentator [like a pharmaceutical executive] or a so-called panel of experts, who would comment on the film would detract from the intimacy I was trying to create.
Did any of the clinics you observe promote an abstinence only approach to this crisis?
From what I was seeing on the ground and in the clinic, I saw people being educated to take responsibility for their actions. The stakes are so high that anything that can be done to reduce the spread of the disease is seen as important including abstinence and condom distribution.
What changes did you observe were effective in helping to slow the deadly spread of this disease in sub-Saharan Africa?
From what I was seeing, the sort of emerging power of women was making a difference. Once they could access information and control their own health and destiny, they were able to make choices for themselves. A lot of the people working at the clinics were strong women who had taken control of their lives and were able to be very direct in talking to other women.
And finally, how do you approach the irony that in order to get people to help eradicate a disease, they need to buy a (RED) product instead of just donating money?
Instead of constantly asking people for a charitable donation, it's a way to say, "Look, you were going to buy a new t-shirt to go with your jeans, sneakers or an iPod anyway this month. Why not buy one that costs you the same amount of money but if you buy the (RED) item, then the money from the company goes directly into the Global Fund to help save someone who is dying from AIDS?
The Lazarus Effect will be airing on HBO Monday, May 24, 2010, at 9:00 p.m. as the centerpiece of a multi-media campaign by (RED) to raise awareness about the impact of large scale AIDS programs at work in Sub-Saharan Africa.