U2log.com’s New York editor Chris Conroy recently attended a Tribeca Film Festival screening of the thirty-minute documentary Heart Of America, chronicling the December 2002 initiative by Bono and his DATA group to bring the message of the AIDS emergency and relief for Africa to the American Midwest. To read his review of the film and event, click the link below.
There were more than a few things that I simply could not stop thinking about as I walked away from this film, but let’s start with the U2-related thought: Bono truly has become “earnest” again. When U2 made their “return to form” in 2000, I, for one, really only thought about it on the musical level: discarding the dance music and avant-garde elements in favor of the familiar chiming guitars and sweepingly romantic lyrics. But there was also that much-discussed “death of irony” idea buzzing around at the time, and watching Bono in the Heart Of America film, I finally saw that newly-rediscovered open heart in action. Bono in Heart Of America is painfully, awkwardly, immensely earnest; when you see him break out into an a capella rendition of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” with the Gateway Ambassadors (a chorus of teenagers from Ghana), or hear him punctuate the testimony of his fellow speakers with a “Yes!” or an “Amen!”, you almost can’t help but wince, and those immortal words echo in your ears: Am I buggin’ ya? I don’t mean ta… bug ya.
But if you let it sink in, you realize; could he come at this problem any other way? There are many ways of dealing — both personally and professionally — with an emergency as large as the one the tour sought to bring to America’s attention. Chris Tucker, another of DATA’s celebrity speakers, seemed almost stunned by it, speaking quietly and with surprising hesistancy and reserve when called to the podium. Ashley Judd speaks with fire and conviction: in all of the appearances shown in the film, you can see the operations of a powerful mind that is truly infuriated by the resistance she’s seen to addressing an eminently solvable problem. Bono is never angry (or rather, he never lets it show), and he never seems cowed by the immensity of his task. As corny as it sounds, the vast wellsprings of charisma and emotion that we’ve all seen him draw upon onstage can, it turns out, translate just as powerfully on a one-to-one basis.
The film is composed of a mix of interview and documentary footage; we watch as elected officials, leaders of business, African activists, religious organizations, and American entertainers make the case for African AIDS relief in the most unlikely venues: churches, high schools, universities, truck stops, a Krispy Kreme donut shop. In every location, you can see the simplicity and absolute persuasiveness of their argument shine through. You can literally watch the faces as ordinary Americans come to understand the immensity of what they’re being told. And when DATA trots out its immortal punchline — “Don’t send money; you already have” — they drive home the final key to making relief happen: convincing politicians of the need to make Africa an issue. As Bobby Shriver, the head of DATA, put it in a Q&A session after the film, most American politicians haven’t heeded DATA’s call simply because they believe “there’s no votes in it;” the purpose of the Heart Of America tour was to convince one of America’s key chunks of electorate to tell their representatives otherwise.
We, as a captive U2 audience, have heard most of Bono’s familiar soundbites on the AIDS catastrophe in Africa before, but the American Midwest had not, and the film deftly repeats for the uninitiated those that are most effective — the “watering-can” argument, for example, which holds the West responsible if Africa “bursts into flames” on our watch and becomes an entire continent of Afghanistans. But there are more than a few surprises in Bono’s arsenal. One of the most powerful moments of the film is when Bono (in an interview staged for the documentary) speaks bluntly on the topic of racism: “If this was happening in Paris, Berlin,” he asks, would we be responding in the same way? “We’d be there in an instant if this was happening anywhere where there were white people.”
It’s this kind of institutionalized, entirely unconscious racism that has lead Bono to believe that the Western world has to a great extent, already written off Africa — when the cost of stopping AIDS in its tracks there is far smaller than almost anyone imagines. In one astonishing scene, Ashley Judd (speaking to a classroom of high-school students) drops a bombshell: the cost of the one-time, one-dose medicine which prevents the transmission of HIV from a mother to an unborn child is one American quarter. A full year’s worth of antiviral treatment for HIV/AIDS cost, at the beginning of the 1990s, over a thousand dollars; at the time of the Heart Of America tour, it had dropped to $350; and, as Bobby Shriver informed us after the screening, has now dropped again to just over $100. These drugs have what the film calls a “Lazarus effect,” raising exhausted and sickly patients from their beds and stabilizing their health to make them productive members of a society and, crucially, an economy; but although 4.1 million Africans require them, only 50,000 get them. Activist Agnes Nyamayarwo, who lost her entire family to AIDS and is herself infected with HIV, is one of these people; in the film, she demonstrates the remarkable simplicity of staying on the drug regimen and shows just how effective and vibrant a patient taking the drugs can be.
While the film may occasionally be uncomfortable to watch — both for the intense emotional content of Bono’s methods of communication, and the sheer horror of the catastrophe it describes — it is never less than compelling, always persuasive, and never obnoxiously preachy, or politically partisan, despite its strong ideological content. The film ends with footage of President Bush (in his State of the Union address of early 2003) making a startlingly passionate, moral, and convincing plea to Congress to fund a sweeping African relief plan; the film sends the message that that plea must be applauded — and followed up on. The issue of African AIDS is one that can easily disappear down the rabbit hole, especially in times as politically tumultuous as these; but the more people who see this undeniably effective film, the more likely it is that the problem will be addressed.
DATA is currently seeking methods of distribution for the film; at the moment, it is used largely at their own events and other avenues for putting it before the public are needed (part of the aim of screening it at the Tribeca Film Festival was to catch any cable-television executives in attendance; the film has been submitted to HBO but it is unknown if it will be shown). May we at U2log suggest, if the rumors we recently heard from Portugal are true, that the documentary should be included on the DVD that may be packaged with U2’s new album? Not only would it be the most persuasive apologia available for why it took the group so long to record the disc (heh), but it would instantly put the film in the hands of hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions, of U2 fans worldwide whose hearts are already open to the message it has to tell.
The Heart Of America film was directed and edited by Dominic DeJoseph on a volunteer basis, and paid for by grants from The Gates Foundation and financier George Soros (whose representatives attended the screening we saw). Again, DATA is seeking ways to present the film to a wider audience. Copies are available, on request, for public events; if interested, please write to the organization at the address below, and if you happen to work in the film or television industries and are interested in the project, we urge you to do the same. As an individual, you may want to consider: attending a DATA event, such as the one to be held in Philadelphia on Sunday; writing to DATA for more information; or, at the very least, visiting their website — www.data.org.
DATA’s mailing address is:
DATA – Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa
1317 F Street, NW 9th Floor
Washington, DC 20004
Or, if you are outside the United States:
8 St James