When English actor Nick Reding, got bored of life in Hollywood after two decades of acting career, he decided to do something different with his life. He did, and in the process touched the lives of thousands of people in far away Kenya.
'Dreams of Elibidi’, the sole film from Africa included in the Competition Section of 16 International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), is in many ways the result and reflection of the change that he brought about in his own life and in the lives of those he met in Kenya, the country that he now calls home.
The Swahili film, which is Mr Reding’s directorial debut, deals with poverty and HIV infection, two of the most pressing issues in the African country. Originally conceptualised as a play and performed all over Kenya, `Dreams of Elibidi’ is Mr Redings effort at combating the lack of awareness and superstition surrounding AIDS and HIV infection in the country.
"I first went to Kenya in 2001 as a volunteer to a Kenyan Indian doctor from New York who specialised in paediatric HIV and wanted to start a clinic in Mombasa. Volunteering for him thrust me into the frontline of the whole public health scenario of the country, which was actually a failure. I was shocked to find that 20 years into the epidemic the people of Kenya were still shockingly illiterate about AIDS. That is when I decided to make use of my profession to do something about it,’’ said Mr Reding speaking to The Hindu.
That led to the birth of Sponsored Arts For Education (SAFE), an organisation that works on spreading awareness on AIDS and HIV infection using theatre as a medium. Together with Kenyan theatre actor and co-director of the film Kamau Wa Ndung’u, Mr Reding gave shape to the play `Dreams of Elibidi’.
``I discovered Kamau from a play performance in a Nairobi slum. While associating with him I realised that there is so much talent in the slums. We then decided to conduct auditions for actors from the slum. The audition went on for days with over 150 people auditioning per day. Finally we zeroed down 17 actors, although the script originally needed only 12,’’ said Mr Reding who has acted in films like `Croupier’, `Boon’ and the television series `The Bill’.
The play portrays the story of a family’s struggle with poverty and HIV by combining humour, hope and reality. The idea was to capture people’s imagination and help them relate to the issues surrounding the epidemic.
"Apart from illiteracy, stigma and superstition are two major issues related to AIDS in Kenya. We basically wanted to break the silence and start a debate on the issue. At the same time we wanted to do it in a very professional manner. Only if we delivered quality performances could we convince the audience and deliver the message, which is most crucial for the whole project,’’ said the actor turned director adding that awareness classes and testimonials were also included after every performance.
The play, which has already been watched by more than two million people, drew tremendous response. It was the success of the play that led to the idea of a movie. With the favours and support from friends back home, `Dreams of Elibidi’ the film became a reality.
The film follows a unique narrative in which scenes from the play are juxtaposed with the film scenes. As a result the ghetto audience is also a character in the film which has had a successful release in Kenya.
"We also won awards in quite a few film festivals. But more than the success of the film it is the success of the whole SAFE project that is most overwhelming. Today people in Kenya are more open about HIV infection and the patient attendance in clinics have also increased. But the most inspiring are the stories that you hear from family members who were initially scared to tend to their HIV infected relatives,’’ Mr Reding said.
He added that SAFE is now working on projects to address the issues of female circumcision and peace building in the country.