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Empty Pews, Full Agendas
An Irresistible Force
It might seem odd to describe Hamsatou, a 13-year-old girl in the West African country of Niger, as lucky. A mysterious flesh-eating disease known as "the Grazer" has consumed the left side of her face, leaving a gaping hole at the side of her nose, through which you can see her pink, unprotected tongue. She shields her head in embarrassment in her village, has no prospect of marriage, and rarely walks further than the nearby well. "When I go to the market," she says, "I'm ashamed of myself. I cover my face so people won't stare at me and laugh."
But Hamsatou is lucky because she is alive. One in three children in Niger, the world's poorest country, do not reach 5 years of age. And while the Grazer will kill 120,000 children in the world this year, a $3 mouthwash would have ensured she need never have succumbed to its ravages. Unfortunately the government of Niger does not have $3 to spare. Three quarters of its annual tax revenue is spent on servicing its $1.4 billion international debt.
CUT TO NAIROBI, KENYA, where Anthony Minghella, Oscar-winning director of The English Patient, is working with a team of six local actors on a short film. Minghella is acutely aware that many pictures beamed from developing countries into the homes of richer countries have lost their emotional power. "We have been saturated by images of starving children surrounded by flies, calculated to elicit sympathy. They don't speak to us anymore." But when Minghella—and his friend Richard Curtis, the writer of Four Weddings and A Funeral and Notting Hill—met the British Chancellor Gordon Brown, as part of the Jubilee 2000 campaign to cancel Third World debt, they realized that maybe a film could tackle the underlying structures of poverty—without anaesthetizing the viewer. The result, an hors d'oeuvres to last summer's Hollywood blockbusters in British cinema, opens with an African family scratching a living from selling peanuts and making model planes from coat hangers. At days end, the family members pool their meager earnings. Leaving their house they are transported—by the magic of film—to Waterloo Bridge in London and thence to a suburban street. Here they knock on the doors of strangers, introducing themselves—and giving back to these people the money they owe them.