Dear Francis is deserving of the notoriety it received at this year’s film festivals. But due to the nature of its grassroots promotion, it is still known by far too few people.
A documentary lasting just over an hour, Dear Francis depicts the AIDS pandemic in the African nation Swaziland (population 1 million) through the eyes of naive but well-meaning Texan college students. After the United Nations named Swaziland the world’s most HIV-infected nation (nearly 40% of its adults are carriers), the Swazi government realized that condom distribution was not an effective way of stopping the spread of disease.
Dear Francis narrators Lance and Kelly team up with a government-approved program to teach abstinence in Swazi high schools. Forming relationships with the youth in and outside the classroom, the Americans created a “Dear Francis” box (think “Dear Abby”) and asked the students to write notes of concern or ask questions about AIDS and HIV. The notes tell tales of horror, as many students have been orphaned, raped, or abused. The American students begin to realize how unprepared they are to deal with the issues of a dying and impoverished culture.
Expert commentary ties the film together and offers more credibility that is needed for such a campaign. Interviews with local and international officials like the Director of NERCHA (National Emergency Response Council on HIV/AIDS) and Bruce Wilkinson, founder of Dream for Africa, offer more information on the pandemic. The movie also includes the most frightening statistic: the nation of Swaziland may disappear in the next 50 years if a solution is not realized.
Directors Jason Djang and Brent Gudgel realized that expert opinions can only go so far in alerting people to the crisis. They could quote a figure saying that 20% of rural Swazi children are orphans from HIV/AIDS. But instead, you see their young faces fill the screen, and watch them play. They could tell you that 53% of the nation’s 15 to 23-year-olds are HIV positive. But they instead bring you alongside one young man who has dreams to grow up and coach basketball, inviting you to sit in on the results of his HIV test.
With a seemingly impossible mission, the Americans realize that the solution will only come by preserving one life at a time, and through learning cultural sensitivity. The film ties in the Christian faith without being overbearing or uncomfortable for non-Christians – the focus is on a dying nation and social action. Dear Francis has already provoked change by putting a face on the AIDS pandemic, and will surely continue to carry a message of hope for Swaziland and its African neighbors.