A filmmaker’s frustrating account of his friendship with an African boy orphaned by AIDS.
Roston is a man with a mission: to help the world learn about the 15 million children, most of them living in sub-Saharan Africa, who have lost their parents to AIDS. While making his first movie about HIV in 2001, Roston met Kevin Sumba. The 12-year-old boy, whose mother had died, lived alone in a shack, roasting nuts that he then sold to support himself. Once his film was completed, Roston tried to move on to other projects, feeling that he “had done my bit for the AIDS epidemic,” but he kept thinking about all those children, especially Kevin. So he began work on another film: This time, rather than being interviewed by an adult, Kevin would ask the questions, quizzing clerics, politicians and educators about their views on the AIDS epidemic. Roston discovered that African children are told over and over not to use condoms, but simply to abstain—a message, he argues persuasively, that will only lead to more deaths. He points to Thailand as an example of another approach; there, the promotion of safe sex has helped curtail the epidemic. All this is worthy material, but Roston’s prose and structure muffle its impact. He has an annoying habit of interrupting the narrative with occasional super-short, coy chapters. “A Brief Note about God and Condoms,” for example, runs a mere four paragraphs. He devotes more time to ponderous metaphors than to helping readers get to know the cast of characters, most of whom—including Roston—remain curiously underdeveloped. Readers may be moved by the plight of African orphans in general, but they’re unlikely to make a particular connection with Kevin or his mentor.
Those seeking a powerful investigation of AIDS in Africa should skip this uneven work and find Helen Epstein’s The Invisible Cure (2007).