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From Conn To Cannes

Special to The Courant
Published on 5/26/2003

Christof Putzel sipped a beer at a beachside party while palm trees swayed and the sun bounced off yachts in the Mediterranean Sea.

"You know that in the back of your mind, the stars of my film are still on the streets," he said at the Cannes Film Festival last week. "They don't know what came of all this. That's a really weird thing to have on your conscience." Putzel, a Connecticut College graduate, recently won a first-place college Emmy for his documentary about the AIDS explosion in Africa. He was just minutes removed from a screening of his work at Cannes, the mecca of the international movie industry.

Putzel's "Left Behind" focuses on the children in a Nairobi slum. Funerals with tiny caskets are backed up like golf foursomes, and residents of all ages sniff glue to forget they are hungry. Few have any idea how they got AIDS. Some believe it's the glue.

Never an aspiring filmmaker, Putzel, 23, is now dedicated to the craft. In two weeks, he will return to Kenya to shoot a fund-raising spot for a church in Los Angeles. While there, he plans to give his "Left Behind" subjects donations from a charity. Then he departs for Iceland to help produce an expose on the slaughter of pilot whales. Considering a once-broke Putzel slept in his car for six months while editing "Left Behind," he is in a remarkable place.

Most of the 20 or so other hopefuls in Kodak's Emerging Filmmakers Showcase at the festival want to be the next Spielberg or Scorsese. Before a screening here, a studio executive urged them to stick to their creative vision but not be too stubborn if a producer asks that a certain actor be attached.

But Putzel's "actors" face long odds to even survive. Putzel originally visited Kenya in the summer of 2000 to work in an orphanage for HIV-positive children. He brought a digital camera with him, after arranging a one-day tutorial with David Tetzlaff, who teaches film courses at Connecticut College.

Putzel began to shoot digital footage, then accelerated his effort when he saw how the devastation fanned out. What began as a film about the orphanage morphed into a larger story about AIDS, prostitution and death. Putzel returned in January 2001 to dig deeper, intent on piecing together a thesis film for his Human Relations and Film Studies major. Kenya remains silent on the tragedy, Putzel said, and access to the grim realities is limited for those who bother to ask for permission.

"I was very naive, and I think that's what made the film," he said. "I would never go ahead and do this thing again. I went to areas where people would say to me, `I don't know if you're braver than a Masai warrior or dumber than a water buffalo."'

Putzel spent the last year living at home in Washington with his journalist parents. (Michael Putzel is a former columnist and Washington bureau chief for the Boston Globe. Anne Blackman is a correspondent for Time magazine.) Many college employees played a part in Putzel's starving-artist-in-residence program. Putzel took too long to finish "Left Behind," and he missed graduating on time. His parents "cut me off," he said, by giving him $200 a month for expenses. Putzel lived in his car for six months in the north campus parking lot during the summer and fall of 2001 while he worked on the film. He lost 20 pounds.

"In times of being so discouraged, I kept remembering the people who trusted me with their stories, with their hopes that someone would actually watch what's filmed," he said.

When the weather turned cold, he slept in the film lab of the science center with the tacit permission of the night janitors and security guards.

"They knew the subject matter so well," Putzel said. "They saw this as their role."

He and Tetzlaff, who has the credit as the film's editor, worked in the lab piecing the film together over several months. For every minute of the 34-minute film, Tetzlaff estimates they went through an hour of raw footage.

"Generally these awards go to students from conservatory schools or major film schools," Tetzlaff says. "To have Christof, who was not a film major, up there competing with UCLA and NYU is unheard of."

The $9,000 budget of "Left Behind" included the two trips to Africa, a $3,000 school grant and a digital camera. In retrospect, it was a meager amount. Putzel shed more light on an unchecked pandemic, and he found a career.

"I've never felt so empowered and so committed and passionate to a subject than when I was trekking around the slums trying to find these stories," he said. "I was overwhelmed at first. I couldn't understand that this was existing in the world, and we didn't hear about it every day."

"I don't quite know what my role is in the biggest disaster to hit the human race in history," he continued, "but if I can just show people and bring it back, then I've done my part."

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