Kief Davidson was making a movie about life-saving operations, but death always hung in the air.
For director Davidson, that was the black cloud over the filming of "Open Heart," his alternately wrenching and uplifting documentary about a group of children from Rwanda who were flown to the only free cardiac hospital in Africa, the Salam Center in Sudan, for surgery to treat their rheumatic heart disease.
"I was very concerned that at least one of them, if not more, were going to die," Davidson said of the eight children whose conditions were caused by untreated strep throat. "I have a five-year-old son, and one of them, Angelique, was around that age.
"I kept saying to myself, 'Don't get attached to this girl.' But of course, you can't prevent that."
(We won't reveal what happens to Angelique and the other subjects, but "Open Heart" will be part of the Oscar shorts program opening theatrically on Feb. 8.)
Also read: Oscar's Documentary Shorts Hit Close to Home
Davidson hit upon this particular story while working on a feature-length doc about the international humanitarian organization Partners in Health. Making a pitch for that doc, he and producer Cori Shepherd Stern used a photo of Angelique, which was so striking that they decided on the spot to follow her story.
Angelique was suffering from a non-communicable, preventable disease that had swept sub-Saharan Africa. Once the No. 1 killer of children in the United States, rheumatic heart disease had long since been eradicated in the U.S. by the availability of antibiotics — but in Africa, medicine was scarce and the battle was being waged by Dr. Emmanuel Rusingiza, the only public pediatric cardiologist in Rwanda, who took small groups of children to Sudan to be treated by Dr. Gino Strada, a former Italian war doctor.
"I was so intrigued by the idea of this Italian doctor-turned-heart surgeon in Sudan that for a while I saw the film as more of his story," said Davidson (right). "But the kids' story unfolded in a way that made me change my mind."
It took his small film crew, which was never more than four people, three trips to Sudan to document the operations, the tough recovery and the shocking setbacks. Given the tensions between the U.S. and Sudan, those were trips he never could have made had the staff of the Salam Center not vouched for him.
Even so, the director and his crew faced an impromptu shakedown when he was invited to dinner at the home of the Sudanese ambassador to Rwanda while in the latter country.
"He didn't tell us anybody else would be there," Davidson said. "But after about half an hour, in walked the heads of the secret service, the police … Pretty much every badass you could imagine. They were all smiles, but the undertone was, 'Don't mess with us.'"
Used to working on feature-length docs, Davidson said he figured a 40-minute short would be easy. "It was very hard to fit the story into the space," he said. "I went into the editing room thinking, 'It'll be half the work of a feature.' But in some ways it was more challenging."
Since the film debuted at DocuWeeks, medical manufacturer Philips has donated a $100,000 portable echo-cardio machine to Rwanda for preventitive screenings in remote villages around the country, and others in the medical field have begun to step up as well.
The long-term goal is to prevent the preventable diseases — but for now, there's a more pressing need. "Our big immediate goal is to arrange surgery for all kids in Rwanda on the urgent list, to literally save their lives this year," said Davidson.