Director Kief Davidson’s journey through Rwanda and Sudan was not only a filmmaking venture, but a life-or-death trek for eight Rwandan children afflicted with rheumatic heart disease. A firsthand look into their lives and the high-risk surgical procedures they must endure, “Open Heart” is a powerful documentary bringing much-needed attention to a disease that affects nearly 18 million people worldwide.

What began as a Matt Damon-produced feature film on the Partners in Health organization grew into a 40-minute companion film, which has just been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. The East Valley Tribune recently spoke with Davidson, who has previously directed documentaries for the likes of the Discovery Channel, ABC News and PBS. During our chat, Davidson talked about the film’s impact, his Oscar nomination and the challenges of embarking on such an emotionally taxing endeavor.

Q: To start things off, what inspired you to make this documentary?

A: Well, “Open Heart” was one of those rare examples of a film that came out of making another film. I was in Rwanda working on a film about a different medical organization called Partners In Health, and when I was there, I was looking for a patient character for that film. That’s when I was introduced to Dr. Emmanuel (Rusingiza), whose one of only two pediatric cardiologists in the whole country. When I went to visit him, there was a huge waiting room filled with children that all have rheumatic heart disease.

At the time, I didn’t know the difference between rheumatic heart disease and regular heart disease so he explained to me that rheumatic came from untreated strep throat. To me, it seemed like such a preposterous idea that people are still dying from something that’s easily preventable and easily treatable with penicillin. That made me pursue the idea of another film that would work alongside the other feature film that we were doing. The reason why this film became a short film is because it was acting as a companion piece to the feature doc on Partners In Health.

Q: How long did you shoot for in Rwanda and Sudan? What were some of the challenges you faced along the way?

A: We shot it in three different stages. The first one I did a little shooting when I found Dr. Emmanuel, and that’s also when I found Angelique, who’s the young girl and our main patient character. That was the first trip. The main shooting was over the course of about a month, which was in February of (2012). For that, I went back with a four-person crew and we followed (the children) from their villages in Rwanda until they had their heart surgery. We stayed about two weeks or so into their recovery period. Then I went back on a third trip by myself when the kids were returning back home to their families.

I think probably the most difficult aspect of making the film wasn’t so much the physical element of it but more the emotional element of it for me and the crew because we were following a bunch of children that we became attached to, particularly young Angelique. The idea that one of them may die on this trip was very, very difficult. We were experiencing things in a very short time period and at a very tense time period so just the threat of one of these operations going wrong was always there.

It really wasn’t until we were leaving Sudan that we felt like everything would be okay because even after the operations, it’s not until after the first month or so that they know if the new valve is going to take and whether or not it’s going to be a successful operation.

Q: How would you say your vision for “Open Heart” or what you wished to accomplish with the documentary changed over the course of the filmmaking process?

A: I think the biggest change overall is the fact that we wound up separating this subject into a separate film, but once that decision was made, the film for the most part went along as we anticipated because we knew that our main chapter points would be meeting the families, the operation and returning home. What was unanticipated for me was the result. For me, the one that I thought had the most risk of dying was Angelique, which was particularly hard for me because she’s 6 and personally, I have a 5-year-old myself so it was hard not to get attached to her.

What was really unexpected was the girl named Marie because I never really thought of her as one who would have disabilities compared to the other ones. When I went back to the third trip by myself, I didn’t bring a crew because to me, that trip was just about getting that one shot of them reuniting with their parents and that’s about it. If you saw the film and watched as this whole chapter of Marie unfolded, the day before we were supposed to leave they realized that the valves didn’t work properly and she’d potentially have to get a whole other surgery.

That was a pretty traumatic story arc that happened quite unexpectedly for us. There was just this overwhelming sadness for us, too, that was there with all the kids because they’d all bonded over the close to two-month period and all of a sudden there was one that had to stay and may not return. That was very difficult for them.

The second unexpected moment for me was when (Sudan’s) President Bashir showed up. That was something that I never would have thought would’ve happened.

Q: How have audiences reacted to the film? Has anyone approached you about how they can get involved or make a difference?

A: Yeah, I find in just about every screening that we have, I find at least one person that wants to help and wants to get involved. We’ve actually been recruiting people along the way that have seen the film that are trying to raise money and trying to raise awareness. We had a screening in Amsterdam, for instance, where a cardiologist there in Amsterdam said, “Hey, we want to help” and he got his whole cardiac team involved in it. The film has been a great tool as well to hopefully foster some sustainable change there.

For instance, Philips, the technology company, we approached them strangely enough by my wife’s father who works in the medical device field. Him and his partner introduced us to Philips, and to make a long story short, has agreed to send Rwanda a very expensive echocardiogram machine that will essentially be able to detect rheumatic heart disease in the field in its earliest stage. Then we partnered with another organization called Team Heart out of Boston, and not only do they do their own surgeries in Rwanda but they’re very big on prevention as well.

They’re going to be having their second preventative screening, where they take this equipment that Philips donated with a team and scan at least 1,000 people in a village in a remote area to see if they have rheumatic heart disease. The earlier you detect it, the more likely you are to treat it and the more likely you won’t need the mechanical valve.

Q: How did you find out about your Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Short and what was your reaction?

A: Well, my producer Cori (Shepherd Stern) called me up. We all knew they were going to announce the nominees between 5:30 a.m. and 6 a.m., but I was up about half the night just unable to sleep, so by the time it actually happened, I slept through and got a phone call. It took a little while for it to set in. I got so many phone calls one right after the other at 6 a.m. in the morning LA-time. It was surreal.

“Open Heart” and other Oscar-nominated documentary shorts are now playing at Harkins Valley Art in Tempe. They will be available on iTunes and video-on-demand beginning Feb. 19.

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