In South Africa, Clara (Chloe Sevigny) is a young, inexperienced but optimistic nun living among the Pondo tribe on the Wild Coast. While her mission is to save the souls of the rapidly dying Africans, Clara becomes embroiled in a futile struggle to help a family of orphans.
When Jin Ping (Lucy Liu) sets up her mobile blood collection service in the tiny Chinese village of Tonghu, the local peasants rejoice and prosper. One farmer, Tong Sam, barred from selling his blood because he has the flu, lies about his daughter's age so she can sell blood in his stead. After his wife and daughter have both mysteriously died, Sam sets out on a journey to find out why.
North American Denny (Shawn Ashmore) is a second rate porn actor who passes his monthly blood tests by stealing samples from his geriatric father. When Denny gets caught, his poverty-stricken family is thrown into turmoil. Facing the prospect of long-term care for her son, his mother Olive (Stockard Channing) develops a plan to escape the luckless hardship that has been her life.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
In order to seek deeper truths about this worldwide pandemic, I traveled. I spent time in rural South Africa, largely among the Xhosi and Pondo tribes. Most of them in the area lived a traditional life, in small round huts made of mud and dung, with no electricity or running water. Most had never seen a movie or television. Some of the children told me they had seen just one movie in their lives, a video about Jesus. Here I worked hardest to gain trust from the community. They were very welcoming of me as a guest, but asking them to share their stories with me required patience. I went to the tribe's Elders to learn about their way of life. For each story they told me, they demanded a story in return. It was a cultural exchange the old fashioned way. Disease they would speak about freely, yet questions about faith and ceremony were met with suspicion. They felt their ancient religion was always harshly judged by White people and didn't like to talk about it with outsiders. I told them it was my job to try to understand every culture equally. I told them about how in America, one night each year we dress our children up as witches, ghosts and monsters, and send them knocking door to door to utter threats and collect candy. The Elders could not believe my story. They accused me of making up ridiculous yarns out Americans so that they would tell me tales of their own bizarre rituals. I asked them to simply tell me what made a tribal wedding special, but of course they didn't know. Eventually my persistence became comical to them, and they began to understand that I wouldn't give up. With a great deal of trust, they told me about their funerals, sacrifices, the ritual to manhood. Many of these stories became signposts of the characters' spiritual quest in the screenplay.
In addition to understanding the culture, I wanted the film to include the tribal peoples' thoughts on the pandemic. I spent time at the government health clinic. I had been told by local business people that the World Health Organization estimates that one in three adults in the area was HIV positive. The clinic serves seventy thousand people. I was surprised that a clinic serving over twenty thousand patients with HIV had no HIV medication of any kind. In fact, the clinic did not have a single doctor. It was run by nurses only. I sat with the Matron in charge of the Clinic and she asked, "Thom, this HIV, where does it come from? Is it true it's from having sex with monkeys?" I assured her that the old monkey sex theory had long lost popularity. I asked if she had first hand experience of children having been raped as a folk cure for HIV, which I had read about in the Times. The Matron said yes, she had in fact seen this at her clinic. This painful reality and the underlying myth that a virgin is imbued with the power to heal also became a brick of the foundation of the screenplay. Ultimately my film and I had been fully welcomed and everyone in the village was fully participating in the creation of the movie.
I learned so much about filmmaking from collaborating with people who had never seen a movie. Because the tribal people had never seen a movie camera, I often noticed them looking with great skepticism at the silly things we do all day to achieve a few shots. From their perspective we had nothing but time to waste. One day the little girl who plays Klipikwella, the victim of the rape folk cure, did her scene at the mission. Every few minutes she would weep and I would ask her what was wrong and she would say that she didn't want the needle. And each time I would remind her that the doctor was not a real doctor, and the needle was not a real needle and the clinic was not a real clinic, so she would not really be getting a shot. But in a few minutes the little girl would see the actor in the lab coat, and she'd forget he wasn't a real doctor and weep again.
When Mabel Adams, the elderly tribal woman who plays the grandmother Nahmnru, did the scene in which she promises to raise her dying daughter's children, she would continue to cry between takes. I had the assistant director reiterate the concept of what "Cut" meant. But Mabel hadn't forgotten. She confessed that her own daughter had died of AIDS, and that she'd had the very same conversation in real life. I was consistently amazed at Mabel's authentic performance--she may not have ever seen a movie, but she was able to reach inside and expose pieces of her own soul. And on the day Mabel's character died, I praised her work and said "See you tomorrow." Mabel chased after me, asking, "If I died today, how can I be in the movie tomorrow?"
Chloë really did form a special bond with the African children. She had a grace and a calm which put the children at ease. Of course they thought she was a real nun. Most of the tribe didn't know about actors, and just assumed Olympia, Sandra and Chloë were actual nuns. And they got quite a shock when one of them would shout the f--- word.
In the middle of the shoot, the producer Bryan and I were swept away by a rip tide in the Indian Ocean. We spent forty minutes fighting the current, and eventually were rescued by five teenage boys. In my time underwater--and I spent most of that forty minutes underwater - I had come to embrace that I was going to die. It was explained to me afterward that the tribal people believe that their ancestors live on in the sea. When someone is taken out by the ocean it is to be more closely examined by the ancestors. Since the ancestors had sent me back to finish the film, the tribe understood that the movie had been given the ancestors' approval. Whereas before they had been cooperative and helpful, they were now inspired and enthused. Whatever a movie was, it must be a good thing to have received the blessing of the ancestors.
Research in China had to be done from a distance. I met with Chinese citizens abroad and in Hong Kong. There was still considerable controversy about AIDS in China and none of the dozen film producers we approached was willing to submit the project to the Censorship Authority. So, we ultimately shot amongst the Chinese Hill Tribes in the far north of Thailand. Thai people are no strangers to the pandemic but their experience with the disease was very different than that of the Chinese. We spent our time largely in a town called Mae Salong where Chinese was everyone's first language. Sometimes directing was like talking into a tin cup; I would articulate a direction which would have to be translated into Thai for the crew, into Mandarin for the cast and into Akha and Karen for the background performers. Cinematic concepts can be difficult in one language. I remember a moment when I was having a frustrating argument about depth-- I was referring to the depth of emotion of the performance, Tom the cinematographer was referring to the depth of field in the focal length and Jim the costume designer thought we were talking about the depth of the color of the actor's hat.
I amassed a Chinese speaking cast from the USA, Canada, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong. We auditioned dozens of little girls from a Mandarin School, but ultimately settled on Yoyo Chorkreaw, a seven-year old acrobat from a Bangkok nightclub. Yoyo is the most naturally gifted performer I've ever encountered, and she was coached in dialect by Tanabadee Chokpikultong who plays her father. The two of them spent a great deal of time together and the bond between them is a beautiful element in the film.
I really wrote the character of Ping with Lucy Liu in mind. And Lucy provided many of her own thoughts and insights over the course of a year of conversations. Lucy approached the character with great respect and she chose to play the character as most vulnerable to ignorance. Ping has no vocabulary to even discuss the illness consuming her because she has no name for it. As I watched Lucy's performance come alive I saw how that underlying principle informed every scene. She dug into the depths of fear when one faces the helplessness of a nameless, faceless illness.
There have been men indicted for infecting multiple women with HIV in almost every state in the USA. In some actual cases, a single HIV positive man knowingly had unprotected sex with over a hundred women. That striking reality forced me to re-contextualize my thinking about blame. I had always accepted the idea that everyone infected with AIDS is innocent. That declaration of innocence began as resistance to the initial onslaught of conservatives blaming gay victims for having naughty kinds of sex. The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle. A generation of people were infected because they had no way to know how to protect themselves. But long after everyone in North America knew what AIDS was and how it is communicated, some people knowingly and sometimes vindictively spread it. Contracting an illness does not make one a better person. A virus can be a weapon.
AIDS is now a manageable disease in western cultures. One can live for decades with the disease. Perceptions in the gay community evolve rapidly. Nowadays, on most weekends in West Hollywood or Chelsea the coolest party may be the one you have to be HIV-positive to get into.
Denys the fictional porn star is a victim of his own imagination. He can't imagine who he would be if he were not able to become the fireman, the doctor, the instantly desirable man his porn videos allow him to be. Because he can't cope with just being himself, he is willing to risk other peoples' lives. Shawn was an ideal actor because he could imbue a despicable action with his innate amiability. He has excellent comic timing and is simply a wonderful guy to work with.
I won't soon forget location scouting in Montreal. It was important to Stockard to be as prepared for her sex scene as possible, which meant seeing the strip club location in advance. Hitting the Montreal strip clubs with Stockard was a blast. She definitely preferred the gay clubs, where the strippers put some effort into the floorshow. Her Broadway roots showed through. Stockard is so funny and articulate; I loved talking with her about life and human nature. She works very, very hard and I could see how she had become a master actor. She had mapped out choices down to the smallest possible moment. I am grateful for all I learned from her.
Shawn Ashmore (Denys)
Stockard Channing (Olive)
Olympia Dukakis (Sister Hilde)
Lucy Liu (Jin Ping)
Sandra Oh (Sister Mary John)
Chloë Sevigny (Sister Clara)
Director: Thom Fitzgerald
Producers: Bryan Hofbauer
Executive Producer: Michael Gleissner
Associate Producer: Mark Bennett
Director of photography: Thomas M. Harting
Editor: Susan Shanks
Writer: Thom Fitzgerald
Production supervisor: Marc Almon
Production designer: François Laplante
Costume designer: James A. Worthen
Music supervisor: Scott Brion
Composers: Christophe Beck, Trevor Morris
Casting: Mark Bennett