On August 15 in Los Angeles, Artists for Amnesty hosted a preview screening of The Constant Gardener, adapted from John le Carrés novel of the same name. In attendance were the director, Academy-award nominated Fernando Meirelles (City of God) and Rachel Weisz, who plays the role of Tessa Quayle. On the surface a story of love and revenge, The Constant Gardener unfolds into a much deeper story, both more rewarding and much more disturbing.
Tessa Quayle, a passionate and dedicated human rights activist in AIDS-ravaged Northern Kenya, is found brutally murdered. Her traveling companion, a local doctor, appears to have fled the scene, and all evidence points to a crime of passion. Members of the British High Commission assume that Tessas widower, their mild-mannered colleague Justin Quayle (Ralph Feinnes), will leave the matter to their discretion. But Justins determination to learn the truth about his wifes apparent infidelity leads him onto a long, dark and twisted path of discovery that quickly becomes dangerous. As Justin investigates his wifes secret life, he begins to unravel a much larger conspiracy, one that has claimed many innocent lives.
Before her death, Tessa had uncovered a great deal of incriminating evidence of the pharmaceutical industrys unethical drug trials on the people of Africa. Justin quickly learns that many of his own friends and colleagues have been implicated in the crimes. For the first time in his life, Justin takes decisive action and risks everything in order to clear his wifes name and to finish what she started, by attempting to bring the pharmaceutical companies as well as the British High Commission to justice.
The Constant Gardener is beautifully-directed and full of top notch performances. Its clear from the quality of execution, from the acting to the music, that this film was a labor of love for the team involved in creating it. And that sentiment was echoed in the Q&A with Meirelles and Weisz after the screening.
Meirelles and Weisz spoke fondly of their experience working in Africa. Even though the book was banned in Kenya, the production was welcomed into the country because the government could not turn away from the economic benefit it would bring to the region. Meirelles wanted to bring the heart of Africa to the screen so he shot as much of the film as possible in the real slums and wilderness. To capture one sequence, the crew spent 12 days in a remote desert, with only tents to shield them from the heat of the day and the windy nights.
Weisz said she could barely believe the warmth and kindness with which the locals welcomed them. The optimism of the African people is evident onscreen as the shocking images of poverty and barrenness are overwhelmed by the vibrant colors and songs of joy that emanate through the community.
The filmmakers dedication to the people of Africa did not end with the making of this film. The producers set up the Constant Gardener Charitable Trust which has already facilitated the building of a school and a bridge within the slum of Kibera. Meirelles has also asked Focus Features to donate 3% of the films profits to the trust. Send your letters of support to: Focus Features, 65 Bleecher Street, 2nd Floor, New York, NY, 10012.
Meirelles said he hopes his film will encourage debate about the ethics of the pharmaceutical industry. While he doubts any of the drug companies will stand up and say, That was me, he hopes The Constant Gardener will help bring the real need for corporate social responsibility in the pharmaceutical industry to the publics attention.
Members of the audience were offered an immediate way to get involved. As the host of the event, Amnesty International was on hand with more information on their Corporate Action Network (CAN).
Fernando Meirelles is fearlessly putting himself out there as a socially-conscious filmmaker. Not only is he creating stories with the potential to have global impact, but he is also dedicated to leaving a positive footprint on the communities he depicts. Originally set up to find the cast for City of God, the non-profit acting school that Meirelles created in Brazil, Nos Do Cinema (We in Cinema):
now serves over 200 youngsters from Rio's poorest favelas and has been structured into a programme that offers a winning solution to the problems of youth in the slums: access to information, training in media skills, an introduction to the formal job market and a powerful means of self-expression. Nos Do Cinema empowers these young people as they explore, discover, rewrite and appropriate their own image and history.
When asked about his next project, Meirelles said his upcoming film, which he hopes to shoot next summer, will be a complicated portrait of life from various points of view all over the world. He said it will be like a puzzle. Meirelles is proving himself to be a filmmaker who is able to put the complicated pieces of world issues together, showing us all that we have a stake in solving these problems.
Micki: Thanks for your post. I enjoyed the book and I'm sure that I'll like the movie even more, as it seems more directly involved with the lives of Africans.
A question, though: how can I find out more about the school and the bridge in Kibera paid for through the Constant Gardener Charitable Trust?
Having lived in Kibera for three months, I know that many schools there are income-producing enterprises for their founders (also, since the government elected in 2002 promised free public education with open enrollment, constructing a school may be redundant.) And building a pedestrian bridge over one of Kibera's many sewage-clogged rivulets, though certainly necessary, is somewhat small potatoes.
Kibera has lots of these small-scale projects and programs sponsored by charities. What it needs, I have always felt, is something that may seem more inchoate, but has the potential for much more lasting effects: training and activism and empowerment.
Oh, and one other thing: Am I correct in understanding that Focus Features has not yet agreed to tithe 3 percent to the Charitable Trust?
Rachel Weisz spoke a bit about how the Executive Producer of the film, Simon Channing Williams has become really involved with the African communities where the film was shot. She said he's been returning to Africa every three months since they completed filming. And Williams has been quoted saying, "This is not about supporting a charity that has a large overhead and new 4x4 vehicles. Rather, our intention is to directly support the areas that have helped us so much, as well as a few specific others. We are right now concentrating on Kibera, Loiyangalani, and the El Molo; also, on orphans of AIDS and the street children of Nairobi. Additionally, we are researching programs that care for children on a non-denominational basis; water programs for the areas in which we have filmed; and the performing arts." While I can't claim expertise on the efficacy of social programs in the region, I do hope some long-term good will come in the wake of the film.
And yes, you are correct - Focus Features has not yet agreed to donate 3% of profits to the Charitable Trust.
Font Size: Pruning The Constant Gardener
By Damon B. Ansell Published 08/08/2005
Growing up in Africa, I witnessed first hand the benefits of prescription drugs. My stepfather, a South African, survived polio as a child in the 1940s; 40 years later, I survived a severe case of malaria while I was living in Kenya.
Considering my upbringing, I was discouraged to learn that Focus Features was developing a film version of John Le Carre's book, The Constant Gardener, which will open on Aug. 26. The story is a penetrating criticism of drug companies and the abuse of poor people to further cures for wealthy Westerners. I believe that this criticism is founded on disrespect and misrepresents both Africa and the pharmaceutical industry.
When it came time to test Jonas Salk's polio vaccine in 1955, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis turned to the five largest pharmaceutical companies in America because they had the expertise and experience necessary to administer the trial. Fifty years after my stepfather survived polio, a global effort to eradicate polio has largely succeeded. So far this year, there are only 827 reported cases of polio worldwide. Imagine if we could say the same about AIDS, or malaria.
When I contracted malaria from parasites carried by mosquitoes, I was treated with quinine sulphate, the substance that makes tonic water taste different than seltzer water. Quinine was first isolated from species of the cinchona tree in 1820. It is not a very remarkable plant, except that it cures and prevents malaria and many minor ailments besides.
Tropical parts of Africa have emerged as the leading world suppliers of quinine bark derived from the cinchona tree. In that sense, the prevalence of the cinchona tree and the inability to save lives with quinine is yet another African paradox. According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 700,000 - 2.7 million persons die of malaria each year, 75% of them African children. I was lucky.
Le Carre's 500-page effort to blame drug companies for our global failure to address African disease epidemics is not all that original. Instead, this kind of blame is a convenient way of distorting the truth. Surely the problem is dire, and there are many factors involved, but papering the problem with tinsel and calling it an Oscar won't improve the availability of quinine tablets or anti-retrovirals.
Movie studios capitalize on the shortest common attention span, and therefore must gloss over certain complicated details. For example, Africa lacks health care workers who are trained to administer pharmaceutical drugs. Health care workers are at high risk of contracting AIDS themselves, a tremendous disincentive for joining the profession. Poor working conditions cause health care professionals to leave their posts. Over 18,000 nurses have fled Zimbabwe alone. Even if U.S. dollars grew on baobab trees, stifling regulations and licensing restrictions prevent health care workers from opening new clinics. Importing medical equipment requires heavily restricted permits often obtained by bribe, adding costs that raise the suspicion of aid agencies.
Meanwhile, governments are deeply suspicious of civil society and the institutions that support it. The public doubts whether their governments can manage public health programs. Long experience has taught that governments will loot public agencies to build palaces, arm their militaries, and travel to luxury resorts.
Still, it isn't helpful to call African governments corrupt. Corruption is no excuse to wash our hands of global health problems. Ultimately the problem is one of scalability: the world community can prevent two-thirds of child deaths in Africa but we can't deliver treatment. Rather than imposing a Western blueprint on African societies, however, we must take a good long look at the way that heath care (in whatever available form) is actually provided in Africa and craft our policies accordingly.
We must consider a pan-African approach to share best practices and skills.
We must support African institutions and tie our confidence in those institutions to aid dollars.
We must admit that aid organizations cannot create a sustainable health care system for Africa -- Africa must do it herself.
We must acknowledge that government policies create poverty, and that conditions of poverty are conducive to the spread of diseases like AIDS and malaria.
And we must celebrate successes to instill hope.
The Infectious Diseases Institute in Uganda is one such success story. It was built and remains largely funded by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, Inc. The institute trains doctors to treat AIDS patients and administer anti-retroviral drugs. So far, it has trained 320 doctors from 15 different countries. On average, and far exceeding expectations, each doctor trained 83 additional people over the first five months after leaving the institute. Training the trainers is important because the flow of drugs to Africa is increasing but education in how to use them is not.
In the fight to save lives in Africa, we must respect the complexity of the problems involved. Governments must play a role; Nigeria recently agreed to a plan that ties debt relief to government transparency. The media must play a role in disseminating information that increases educational awareness and incites behavioral change. And the private sector must play a role: De Beers was one of the first companies in Africa to provide anti-retrovirals for its employees.
In my father's house in Karen, Kenya, a suburb of Nairobi, we have several Le Carre novels on our shelves. I enjoy his spy novels, but I am disappointed that he has so poorly misrepresented Africa's greatest tragedies. In the future, I hope that Le Carre will stick to cloak-and-dagger intrigue rather than alluding to a mistaken sense of reality.
Damon B Ansell is a co-founder of Uhuru.
Damon, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. While I haven't read the book, I do encourage you to go see the movie. I don't think the film is attempting to present a historical account of the African health care crisis, or to lay blame on African governments, as much as it is trying to draw the audience into the issues via the raw emotions at the heart of the story. At the very least, this film is poised to raise the issue into public consciousness and provide a platform for debate and action. I'm curious to hear what you think of the movie!