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From Conn To Cannes
Connecticut College Graduate Wowing The Film World With His Documentary About AIDS Orphans In Africa

Day Staff Columnist
Published on 6/6/2003

Filmmaker Christof Putzel's story is one of extremes. He went from examining the AIDS tragedy in some of the poorest areas of Kenya to being celebrated for the resulting documentary at the glitzy Cannes Film Festival.

The Connecticut College graduate lived in his car at the school's north parking lot in the fall of 2001 while editing the film, titled “Left Behind.” And he has now jetted out to Los Angeles for the Student Academy Awards. The 23-year-old knows he won one of the top three awards for documentaries there, but he won't find out which one until the ceremony on Sunday.

Putzel recognizes the wildly contradictory nature of it all. When he was in the French Riviera for Cannes last month, he says, “there are times when you remove yourself from the yachts and the luxury hotels and the Rolls Royces and Ferraris, and you can't help but think, ‘Oh, my God, I'm here right now, and the stars of my film are still out on the streets back home.' ”

“Left Behind” is a clear-eyed but heartrending piece that focuses on the AIDS crisis in Kenya but ultimately is just as much about the ravages of poverty. When he began filming, Putzel was planning on concentrating on the orphanage for children with AIDS, just outside Nairobi, where he was volunteering during the summer of 2000.

“But once I saw the realities of the pandemic and of how only a fraction of the percentage of kids lived in a place like (the orphanage), I realized if I wanted to capture reality, I had to venture outside the gates,” he says by phone from his Washington, D.C., home.

“I honestly went over there kind of naïve. I didn't really understand how bad (the situation) really was.”

The child of two journalists, Putzel had traveled a lot, living in Moscow for three years during the Cold War and studying in the Czech Republic. (Putzel's mother, Ann Blackman, was a correspondent for Time magazine, and his father, Michael Putzel, was Washington bureau chief for The Boston Globe and Moscow bureau chief for The Associated Press.)

Putzel, however, had never been to a Third World country.

“I thought I was going to be prepared for whatever Kenya was going to bring, but I wasn't,” he says.

What he saw — and what he shows viewers through his documentary — are such devastating sights as a graveyard of tiny plots, filled with young children who have died from AIDS. And that's not even the worst of it.

Teenage boys, orphaned when their parents died of AIDS, live on the streets and sniff cheap glue to sate their hunger pains. They are either ignorant or in denial about what causes AIDS. One boy says with utter certainty that manufacturers put the AIDS virus in condoms; using condoms, he explains, actually causes AIDS. Another boy refuses to believe that he contracted AIDS from his infected mother; he chooses to believe instead that he got it through sniffing glue.

Severe impoverishment is the driving force behind the tragedy here. Women become prostitutes (and have unprotected sex) so they can make money to feed their children. One man says the only real pleasure he has is making love and he is not going to listen to people who tell him he can't even do that because of AIDS.

In one shattering scene, Putzel learns that two young men have been burned to death by a mob (tires are put around their bodies and set ablaze) after they were discovered trying to steal from someone's house. Putzel arrives after they are killed, but someone unwraps one of the covered bodies for the filmmaker — and for us — to see.

Putzel doesn't shy away from peril. He spends a night with the street kids — without his usually omnipresent local guide at his side, which was a dangerous thing to do. As he drives to the meeting, Putzel videos himself explaining the situation and says, “My mother is going to kill me.” It's a rueful comment, since the boys he is meeting have all lost their mothers. Putzel asks one of the boys about his parents, and in a rare, unguarded moment for these tough kids, the boy starts crying, silently.

“Left Behind” has won a Student Emmy, the David Wolper Award from the International Documentary Association, and an HBO Films Award. Usually, the people who win these awards are students who are doing their master's thesis at a pre-professional film school or conservatory, at USC or NYU.

“As far as I know, no student from a four-year liberal arts college has ever won any of these awards, much less four or five of them in a year,” says David Tetzlaff, the assistant professor of film studies at Conn who helped Putzel edit the film. “In terms of what I would consider major awards for student documentaries, it seems that Christof has gotten pretty close to a sweep.”

Putzel ended up at Cannes through Kodak, which invites a group of young auteurs to Cannes as part of the Kodak Emerging Filmmakers Showcase. His film — and the fact that it was also a top-three finalist for the Student Academy Awards — had people offering distribution deals. Among them was Russell Simmons, the founder of Def Jam Records who also produces movies.

Getting to this point of adulation, though, wasn't an easy ride. Back when Putzel was editing the film at Conn, he spent nights sleeping in his car — which could get rather chilly, considering the car was a 1968 Mustang convertible. He was supposed to have graduated in the spring of 2001, but he hadn't finished the film, which was his thesis project. Although he was no longer really a student, he remained at the school, working on “Left Behind.”

He spent nights, too, curled up in a sleeping bag on the floor of the film lab in Olin Science Center. He would wake up early to shower in the dorms before anyone else was up and about.

“My parents didn't really know what I was working on. If they had, I think they would have been more supportive. I wrack them with guilt now,” he says with a laugh. “After a few months, I hinted at the conditions I was living in, and then they gave $200 a month.”

As tough as it was, Putzel was well aware that his situation was easy compared to that of the people he profiled in his documentary.

“I really believed in the subject. I felt so responsible for all these people who had trusted me with their stories in the hopes that someone is going to hear them,” he says.

Putzel felt it was important, too, to help inform people about the situation, which he describes as a pandemic that's worse than anything in the past, including the Black Plague.

He's even caught the ears of U.S. senators, some of whom screened the film. There are comments in the Congressional Record of senators praising the film and, Tetzlaff says, “It managed to impress both Henry Hyde and Edward Kennedy.”

Putzel didn't start making films until his sophomore year of college. At Conn, he majored in psychology and minored in film. His academic adviser, Jefferson Singer, suggested he film his time at the orphanage in Kenya, telling Putzel he has a way of drawing people out.

He is returning to Kenya in August. Putzel knows that one of the teenage boys who were living on the streets when “Left Behind” was filmed has returned to school and is third in his class. He knows, too, that most of the adults he interviewed who had AIDS have since died.

As you'd expect, the experience has changed Putzel tremendously.

“It's hard to put into words, but after you experience something like that, it's very hard to go back to your regular life,” he says. “To be honest, while I was there, I feared going back because what if I started forgetting? I feared getting back into my lifestyle, just because that's what you do. I just would promise myself that I couldn't let myself forget. I haven't.”

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