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How a Filmmaker’s Ambition Changed From Buying a Ferrari to Documenting a Plague

Jezza Neumann wants to introduce you to a 12-year-old fighting for her life in new PBS documentary

Jezza Neumann, the filmmaker behind the new film “TB: Silent Killer,” took the least predictable path to the village in Swaziland where he documented the rebirth of a plague.

Two decades ago, the 46-year-old British director got an entry-level job in TV, and started thinking about buying a nice sports car sometime soon.

“I got a job as a runner and I thought it was cool,” Neumann told TheWrap. “I thought, I’m 25 — wicked. I work in TV, my mates like it when I go down to the pub and have a beer. And I thought, by the time I’m 30, I’m going to be making it big and I’ll drive a Ferrari.”

But then his job led him to True Vision, a company focused on documentaries that make a difference. And Neumann felt his priorities shift. His latest film for “Frontline,” which airs Tuesday on PBS and online, follows a 12-year-old girl diagnosed with tuberculosis, the same disease that killed her mother.

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Though it gets relatively little press, TB — which is passed by a mere cough or sneeze — has become the planet’s second-leading cause of death by infectious disease. It ranks behind only HIV-AIDS, which contributes to the spread of TB by weakening immune systems. Because drugs are expensive and hard to come by, many victims cannot complete their full course of treatment, and their TB adapts into deadlier, more drug-resistant strains.

Once eradicated in the Western world, TB is returning to the United States and Europe as it mutates across the globe. There are more than 8 million new infections every year, and no country has a higher incidence than Swaziland. Neumann met his main subject, Nokubegha (pictured), the day before she learned she had also been infected. (You can click here to see how to help victims of TB.)

TheWrap: How did you find your subjects? Do you look for the people who best illustrate the struggle, or those whose stories have the most dramatic punch?

Jezza Neumann: We tried to find a family that would understand what we were trying to do and that best represented the issue we were trying to cover. And at the same time, we try to find families an audience in the U.K. or America could identity with.

Wherever I go, if I’m there, it means your life isn’t great. You do feel a bit like the Grim Reaper at times. But the idea it is to find families who understand that while the film may not help them, it will help other families like them … It takes a certain type of character and person to do that. To be open enough and compassionate enough to try to make change.

Can you talk about Nokubheka, your main subject?

In the case of Nokubheka and her brother, we met them at a time that they were orphans and they were somewhat lost. In a way, by being there you do become someone in their lives, which gave them a bit of a focus at a time that was incredibly hard. You hope that making the film can be cathartic or therapeutic in some way. … You hope that they get empowerment from the process of making the film.

They were bright kids. I always describe Nokubheka as the little girl next door. She loves to dance, she loves dolls. When you see her in her hut you could be looking through the door of a suburban house in America.

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People always ask documentary filmmakers: At what point do you put down the camera and help?

In this case, particularly with TB, if I had a medication that could help them, everyone would be clamoring for me. Because that’s the point: There isn’t a medication that is great. There isn’t one that is working well. There is medication, but it’s a two-year course once you get drug-resistant. And how many Nokubhekas could I save? It’s expensive, this treatment. It’s really expensive.

There was a point when [a family’s] harvest was ready but the rain was coming, and they knew they had about an hour to cover the corn or it would all be ruined. So we put the camera down and moved corn to help save their harvest. Because that’s what you do. That’s the relationship you form with these families. It goes beyond just making the film.

Why is TB on the rise again?

TB is a massive problem. It had been eradicated from the West, but it hadn’t been from developing countries. And as the world suffered economic crashes, everybody’s found things tight in poorer countries … You’ve had situations where a lot of people haven’t completed their courses, and you see mutations of TB. The big worry at the moment is the spread of drug-resistant forms of the disease.

The world has become a global village, as people like to say, and this is an airborne disease … And at the moment there is little research development into it. In most western countries cuts are being made in all areas of society and government budgets and support for these sorts of things are also suffering. If you cut finding for TB and therefore reduce the resources of countries to change it, then you’re going to see more and more people not completing the course, which we know causes the mutations.

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Did you worry about getting TB?

Yeah. I’m a bit of a risk-taker. My first jobs were all working undercover. I’ve been to Zimbabwe, I’m been to Gaza, I’ve been to Chechnya. And I ride a motorbike and play rugby.

There were times I’d be filming something and someone would say, “Get out of that room. Move back to the doorway.” … When we wore the masks we looked a bit like demented ducks. You had a smashed beak on your face. That’s not the way I wanted to connect with these people.

For me, I just feel that I had a choice to be there. They have no choice. If there’s a risk, there’s a risk. But my risk can in no way compare to what they’re going through.

Do you like the rush of covering something this dangerous? 

As you do it, it’s addictive. You realize that money isn’t so important. And what is an hour of TV if that’s all it is? If all it is is an hour of this thing that runs 24 hours, every day, all over the world, what is one hour of TV? It’s nothing.

The sacrifices I ultimately make to my wife and my children have to be worth it. To me, big bucks wasn’t gonna be worth it. It has to be more than that.