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Posted February 5, 2003
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For AIDS, defining moment on film



A white man sits beside the hospital bed of a small African boy, reading from a picture book about animals. The boy listens, almost too frail to smile. He musters a weak thumbs-up when the man says goodbye.

That thumbs-up, tragic and hopeful, is emblematic of Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Robert Bilheimer's documentary about AIDS, A Closer Walk, which previews today in Los Angeles.

Captured on film, the gesture will outlive the boy. Today, at age 5, Fezile (fe-zeel-ay) is still living on borrowed time. But his irrepressible spirit reinforced Bilheimer's conviction that A Closer Walk -- filmed in Africa, India, Haiti, Ukraine, Cambodia and Kansas City, Mo. -- can change the way the world thinks about AIDS.

''We wanted to make the first film about global AIDS for everybody,'' says Bilheimer, 58, tipped back in a chair in his room at a hotel in Washington, D.C., his hands in perpetual motion. ''If we can get it to millions, as we intend, we'll be well on our way toward starting a revolution in AIDS awareness.''

His timing couldn't be better. The film's first major showing comes a week after President Bush (news - web sites) moved to the forefront of the fight against AIDS in no less a forum than his State of the Union address. Declaring AIDS ''a severe and urgent crisis,'' Bush challenged Congress to set up a $15 billion AIDS relief fund for Africa and the Caribbean.

The film, narrated by actors Glenn Close (news) and Will Smith, is an ambitious attempt to bring the magnitude of the AIDS crisis to a global audience. Bilheimer and his colleagues are planning a distribution and marketing campaign that includes movie theaters, national and international television, grass-roots groups, and schools and college campuses.

''The objective here is to reach beyond the normal audience for this kind of film,'' he says.

General Motors has agreed to finance a $500,000 public-awareness program, with additional screenings at theaters in Washington, Kansas City, Johannesburg and New Delhi.

Close says she agreed to donate her voice to the project because she loves Africa, and she wants to awaken people to what she calls the ''holocaust'' there and elsewhere. The actress has been to Africa many times. Her father, William Close, spent 16 years as one of Zaire's leading physicians, caring for deposed dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, members of his army and other patients.

But AIDS is unfolding in other nations, too, and Close says she feels a kinship with all those who are affected by the disease.

''People are dying,'' she says, and they ''have just as much of a right to live as me, my child and everyone on my street.''

Filmmaker's challenge

Making an AIDS film that people will want to watch poses a challenge, Bilheimer says, but not an impossible one.

''The way you do that,'' he says, ''is to find redemption in this tragedy. And you do it in such a way that it becomes no longer foreign or frightening to you. It takes on the beauty of a work of art.''

Audiences will decide whether Bilheimer has succeeded. Most viewers will come to AIDS much as he did, knowing relatively little about it. ''I didn't come to this movie as an AIDS person,'' Bilheimer says. ''I came to it as an outsider.''

They will meet Paul Farmer, who has turned a squalid squatter camp in Haiti into a model of 21st-century medical care, and Hassan Semankula, 15, of Uganda, once a carefree teenager, who dropped out of school to care for his dying mother and now cares for his brothers and sisters.

They'll hear the Dalai Lama and Bono, spiritual leader and rock star, use AIDS as a lamp to explore the deeper reaches of the heart.

And they'll meet the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver of St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City -- and the city's former two-term mayor -- who proclaims from the pulpit: ''Maybe AIDS will wake us up. Maybe it will cause the church of Jesus Christ to actually act like the church of Jesus Christ!''

Dedicated to the cause

As much as anything, A Closer Walk documents Bilheimer's own journey into the kingdom of AIDS. It began with a routine interview with public health pioneer Jonathan Mann, to whom A Closer Walk is dedicated. Mann launched Africa's first AIDS research program in Kinshasa, Zaire, then organized the global response to AIDS. He was killed in 1998 in the Swissair crash off Nova Scotia.

During his two years in Kinshasa on assignment for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mann and colleagues from the USA, Belgium and Africa did groundbreaking research on the nature of the epidemic. His experience in Zaire convinced him that AIDS was a symptom of a deeper social sickness and that public health and human rights go hand in hand.

''He had a wonderful way of dreaming, seeing the big picture and making it tangible,'' says Helene Gayle of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (news - web sites). Gayle was Mann's CDC colleague during those years.

Mann's message appealed to Bilheimer, who grew up in Geneva in what he calls a ''socially conscious'' home. His father helped found the World Council of Churches, which develops programs that bring Protestant churches together to work on a range of issues, including social justice. He used his position to fight racism in South Africa, which brought his teenage son into contact with prominent South Africans, among them Alan Paton, author of the anti-apartheid classic Cry, The Beloved Country.

Message is clear: 'It can be done'

Bilheimer made his first documentary about Beyers Naude, a friend of his father's and South Africa's most prominent Afrikaner clergyman, who left the pro-apartheid Dutch Reformed Church in protest against its entrenched racism. Apartheid then, like AIDS now, seemed impossible to uproot.

''Why is it impossible?'' Naude asks in the film. ''The people don't think it's impossible. I don't think it's impossible. It can be done.''

The film, The Cry of Reason, was nominated for a 1988 Academy Award. Apartheid lasted only two more years; then, in 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after nearly 28 years.

Then came other projects and A Closer Walk.

For Bilheimer, A Closer Walk is The Cry of Reason with a different hero fighting a different sort of enemy: AIDS and the social conditions that breed epidemics.

Mann embraced the project, supplying guidance and signing fundraising letters. Ultimately more than a dozen foundations and other contributors would finance the film, including Bilheimer's father. Just as filming was set to begin, Mann's plane crashed, and Mann and his wife, AIDS vaccine researcher Mary Lou Clements-Mann, were killed.

''He was going to be in the movie,'' says Carol Mann, his sister. ''Bob and Jonathan were going to meet sometime in September, when he came back from that trip.''

Bilheimer was devastated by Mann's death, but it only strengthened his resolve to finish the film. ''It was my way of dealing with this death, which affected me as it did thousands of people.'' One hero became many -- the people in the hospitals, clinics and slums who are fighting to save lives.

Mann's daughter, Lydia, and her filmmaker husband, Michael Masland, offered their own tribute to Mann by contributing to A Closer Walk. They traveled to Cambodia, partly at their own expense. Filming included a Buddhist monastery, where monks have taken in AIDS orphans, provided for them and cut their hair in the ''pagoda'' style to show they're under the monastery's protection.

Bilheimer found an equally powerful motivation for finishing the film at one of his first stops, Murchison Hospital near Port Shepstone, South Africa. There he met Fezile and others like him. ''It was my first encounter with the nightmare of AIDS in children.''

AIDS had changed Fezile from a ''bouncy, roly-poly laughing child'' to a ''nearly still-life portrait of a human being,'' Bilheimer wrote in his journal. Weak as he was, Fezile gave Bilheimer a little wave, and the filmmaker was hooked on the boy. He decided not only to film Fezile but also to spend half an hour a day reading to him.

Then came time to say goodbye. ''I knew that saying goodbye to Fezile would be difficult,'' the journal notes. ''I knew that I would probably not see him again, since I wouldn't be back for six months. So I did what I had done each day for a week: read a bit, chatted, held his hand. Then I just kissed him on the forehead, told him I loved him and said, 'I'll see you.'

''I stood and gave him the thumbs-up sign that everyone uses around here. . He gave me one of his smiles and his own thumbs-up. We just looked at each other with our thumbs in the air for five or 10 seconds. I knew that I would never forget this final image of the boy as long as I live.''

Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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