December 1, 2001

The Long Road to 'A Closer Walk'

<em>A Closer Walk</em> producer and director Robert Bilheimer in an AIDS ward in Tambaram Sanatorium, India. Photo courtesy of Robert Bilheimer.

A Closer Walk is a $2 million feature-length film about the global AIDS epidemic, scheduled for worldwide release in 2002. As the film nears completion, I have been reflecting upon the six-year journey my colleagues and I have traveled in raising money for this project, and what we have learned along the way. The actual filming of A Closer Walk over the past two years has been the most enriching and rewarding experience of my life, and I have high hopes for what the film can accomplish. But as any independent documentary filmmaker knows, it was not easy getting to this point. I started working on A Closer Walk in 1995 when I met the late Jonathan Mann. Jonathan was the architect of the World Health Organization’s program on global AIDS, and is widely known as the leader of the international response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The basic idea that Jonathan and I had was for a film that would change the course of the epidemic and thus of history. We knew that the general public, through no fault of its own, was ignorant and misinformed as to the realities of the pandemic, and believed that a thoughtful and inspiring documentary could enlist millions of women, men and young people around the world in a battle that needed to be joined on many fronts. We believed that such a film should not only sound the alarm as to the harsh realities of global AIDS, but should also explain the pandemic’s underlying causes: poverty, marginalization, discrimination, assaults on dignity and human rights. An understanding of these root causes, we believed, would separate AIDS from its stereotypes and metaphors, and inspire in people around the world a concern for our collective future and a renewed sense of membership and responsibility in the human family.

This kind of thinking was deeply inspiring to me, and I remember feeling six years ago that getting this project up and running would be relatively easy. It all made so much sense! Funders would get this! What an incredible opportunity for all concerned! As it turned out, I was profoundly mistaken.

For one thing, the foundation community—an important source of funding for documentary filmmakers—was, by and large, in a state of evolution as far as AIDS programming was concerned. Information was coming in from around the world as to the immensity of the disaster; people like Mann were predicting apocalyptic numbers by the year 2000; internal debates as to programs and priorities were being held; and all this left virtually no room for what we were proposing. Even at foundations where I was respected and had a good track record, I was told time and time again that, “Our resources our limited.” Or, “We’re putting everything we’ve got into programs on the ground where we can actually save lives.” Or, “We’re focusing on community education.” Or, “We’re re-evaluating our priorities.” And so on. My argument—we would keep losing the war against AIDS until we engaged the general public in a meaningful way through the powerful medium of film—fell on deaf ears. I honestly felt at times that, in the mid-1990s, funders didn’t really understand the importance of explaining to the general public what was going on, or what was going to happen—an atmosphere and attitude reinforced by the mostly careless, neglectful, and irresponsible media coverage of the pandemic in the early part of the decade. So this part of the walk was straight uphill, and very discouraging. My highly respected collaborators notwithstanding, no one was giving us any time, and no one was giving us any money.

But the more I immersed myself in the realities of AIDS in the world, the more astounded I became at the immensity of the looming crisis, and the more determined I became never to give up. I came to terms with the fact that we were in this for the long haul; the project could not and should not be rushed; I needed to write a much better proposal; and I had to accept responsibility for the role that A Closer Walk could eventually wind up playing in the history and progress of the AIDS pandemic. I believed then, as I do to this day, that A Closer Walk could literally save lives, and I therefore had no choice. The film had to be made.

So the first thing I did was borrow $10,000 from my 80-year-old mother, who is not rich, but can do this kind of thing on a limited basis. I also called on another 80-year-old, Charlotte, a longtime personal friend who for decades has run a cutting-edge family foundation that had funded some of my previous work.. Charlotte responded with a $10,000 grant and a $30,000 loan, which she forgave two years later. With these funds in hand I paid off debts from the past three years, then traveled, did more research, and finally wrote a detailed, carefully thought-out treatment/proposal that has served us beautifully ever since. I submitted this proposal to “David and Goliath.”

“David” is Phil Hallen of the Maurice Falk Medical Fund, a small foundation in Pittsburgh focusing on civil and human rights issues. During a 30-year tenure as the foundation’s president, Hallen, now retired, has played an important role in getting the foundation community in this country to understand the value and importance of funding documentary films, and he is active in this capacity to this day. Hallen is known and loved by dozens of filmmakers around the world for his small, but exquisitely timed grants—I call them survival grants. Hallen has helped pay a lot of bills, and in so doing kept a lot of projects alive.

“Goliath” was Phil’s friend at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Woody Wickham. MacArthur has one of the best documentary film-funding records in the world, and when I wrote to Wickham in 1997, the foundation’s thinking about AIDS and its threat to global security was very much in keeping with the “big picture” ideas Mann and I had been talking about. Between the two of them, Hallen and Wickham came up with $80,000 in development funds, and Hallen also introduced the project to the Gund Foundation, which provided an additional $30,000. By the end of 1997, we at least had a sense that it was possible to raise money for a film like A Closer Walk; indeed, those who understood what we were trying to accomplish with the film became real believers. But with less than 10 percent of the budget in the bank after three years, it still wasn’t proving to be easy, and I remember thinking during the first six months of 1998 that the world really needed to wake up as to the realities of the pandemic.

In late August 1998, I had dinner with Mann and his wife, Mary Lou, a leading AIDS vaccine researcher at Johns Hopkins. We decided that night to intensify our efforts to get the project up and running, and came up with a “phase two” plan for when the Manns returned from a trip to Geneva, Switzerland, two weeks hence. This plan included our first in-depth interview for the film with Jonathan himself. We parted in laughter, our spirits high, our resolve firm.

Ten days later, both Jonathan and Mary Lou were dead. They were killed in the crash of Swissair 111, which claimed all lives on board. Jonathan’s death was a huge blow to the international AIDS community—he was its inspirational leader—and a terrible loss to all his friends.

With Jonathan suddenly gone, my colleagues and I felt alone for a time as far as the project was concerned. But never for a single moment did it occur to me to abandon it. If anything, my resolve was stronger; the more we were beaten down, the more committed we became. So in the fall of ’98, some weeks after the Manns’ deaths, we formed an advisory board for the project, which has now grown to some 25 individuals all over the world, and has proven to be enormously helpful. The initial group was small, but committed. Hallen joined, and immediately came up with another $30,000 to help the transition. In the spring of ’99, Wickham and Alyce Myatt at MacArthur came back with a second grant of $100,000, and we received $75,000 from the Royal Marks Foundation Fund as well.

By September 1999, we had raised some $300,000 over a four-year period; done all the research, development and pre-production work; and had some important preliminary footage in the can. But we were still looking for the bulk of our production budget—some $1.7 million—and I was becoming increasingly frustrated. I wasn’t on the road, wasn’t in the field, wasn’t doing the work. And there was so much to do! By this time, AIDS had established itself as the worst public health crisis in human history. Women, children and men were dying--as they are to this day--at the rate of one every ten seconds, day in, day out. The African continent was turning into a disaster area; and the virus was establishing new fronts in Russia, China, South Asia and other parts of the world. Yet I was still writing letters, sending out proposals, making phone calls, selling, selling, selling.

Then, on November 23, 1999, we received a phone call from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We had been encouraged to apply to Gates during the summer by one of our advisory board members, Nils Daulaire of the Global Health Council. My wife and colleague, Heidi, actually took the call, then phoned me with the extraordinary news: Gates had awarded the project $1 million. This was an easy decision for us, they said; the film is very much needed. As I drove home, I was laughing and crying at the same time. What I remember most is what Heidi first said: “Robert, Gates called. You’re going to be able to make your film. You’re going to be able to do the work.” Precisely.

We started shooting in South Africa in January 2000, and since then have amassed some 80 hours of super-16mm footage in AIDS epicenters on four continents. Our subjects and interlocutors range from impoverished AIDS orphans in Uganda to the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala; from powerless and dying women in India and Haiti to Kofi Annan in New York; from hospice workers in KwaZulu Natal to Bono of U2 in Washington. During the entire production period, which is now winding down with shoots in Brazil and again in South Africa, we have had to continue to raise money: The Gates grant took us to $1.3 million against a total budget of $2 million. Notably, in the last two years, my friend Charlotte, whom I mentioned earlier, came up with not one, but two additional grants of $100,000—an astonishing act of generosity, understanding and commitment. Like Hallen’s and Wickham’s, her grants were exquisitely timed; responsive and creative philanthropy at its best. With an additional $100,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and other support from individuals, we have got it down now to a remaining $250,000. We will find these funds, of course, but I am sure that it will be a challenge right to the end.

The common wisdom is that fundraising is something we all hate to do. It’s time-consuming, frustrating and oftentimes demeaning. Having to raise money while in production is particularly nerve-wracking. Yet I realize now that presenting A Closer Walk to funders gradually became an integral and even rewarding part of the creative process itself. I believe we will have a better film precisely because I have had to sell in an unresponsive climate and my ideas have been tested and challenged—and ultimately refined—in the marketplace. Because of my own experience, I hope that more and more partnerships will emerge between filmmakers and funders that are based on a sense of mutual respect and common purpose, rather than a “fundraising-is-a-necessary-evil” mentality. The fact of the matter is that fundraising is necessary, period. In the end, whether it proves to be a positive or negative experience, it is based on a decision that only the filmmaker can make, and an attitude that only he or she can adopt.


Robert Bilheimer, an Academy Award® nominee, is president of Worldwide Documentaries. ( His journal letters describing the filming of A Closer Walk may be found on .