Meet the Filmmakers: Christa Graf--'Memory Books'

By Tom White

Over the next few weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, August 8-14 in New York City and August 22-28 in Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Christa Graf, director of Memory Books.

Synopsis: In Uganda, AIDS-infected mothers have begun writing what they call Memory Books for their children. Memory Books are a way for families to come to terms with the inevitable death that they face. Hopelessness and desperation are confronted through the collaborative effort of remembering and recording, a process that inspires unexpected strength and even solace in the face of death.

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Christa Graf: Until 1978 I worked as a laboratory technician in the biochemistry research department of the Max Planck Institute and at universities in Munich, Berlin and New York. Long trips in Africa, the Americas and Asia inspired my dream of becoming a journalist. In 1992 I began an internship at TELE5 TV station and later worked as a volunteer at TV Freising. Since 1994, I have been a freelance author and producer for various TV stations and have created more than 50 reportages and documentaries for renowned stations including ZDF, 3sat and Bayerischer Rundfunk.

IDA: What inspired you to make Memory Books?

CG: In 2006 I went to a reading of I Die, But the Memory Lives On by Henning Mankell, a Swedish author who gained bestseller stardom with his series of crime novels. Because he lives not only in Sweden, but also in Mozambique, he has a special interest in African concerns, so he wrote the first book about the Memory Book project. At the reading Mankell said a lot about the Memory Books and how they might become one of the most important documents of our time, which sparked my interest. I wanted to find out more about the Memory Books, so I decided they would be my next topic.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

CG: One of the biggest problems ocurred right at the beginning. I went to Uganda to find protagonists for the film. Unfortunately, as soon as I told them about the documentary's topic, they all lost interest, turned me down and refused to help. Of course I could understand it because for them it looked just like another European making another film about AIDS and how Africa is ruining itself. But when I explained I was trying to make a film about how Africa deals with this problem and how it lives, not about how it dies, they became very cooperative and friendly.

IDA: As you've screened Memory Books--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

CG: The audiences' reactions were really overwhelming. Everybody responded so well to the film. They were so caught up in the story, so touched by the characters. But the most amazing thing was that so many people said they left the cinema with a really good feeling because even though the film is about AIDS and therefore very sad, it also shows so much strength and hope that in the end it turns out as a positive and life-affirming film.

IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

CG: I've seen Rhythm Is It by Thomas Grube and Enrique Sánchez Lansch, and I was impressed by the strength the film showed. I wanted to show the strength of the African women in the same pure way in my film. I also liked The Story of the Weeping Camel, which showed an equally exotic world as I was about to show.

Memory Books will be screening at the Arclight Sherman Oaks.

To view the DocuWeek schedule in Los Angeles, visit

To purchase tickets to DocuWeek at the ArcLight Sherman Oaks, visit