Tears of Joy
An Award-Winning Film Documents Struggles & Victories of Children Living with HIV
by Chip Alfred
An estimated fifteen million children have been orphaned by AIDS. About one in five is living with HIV, according to the World Health Organization. Tiny Tears is an impassioned and compelling chronicle of the daily lives of these AIDS orphans and children affected by HIV on four continents.
In 2006, executive producer and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Brian Mehling and producer/director Robert Corna set out to make a humanitarian movie about an AIDS orphanage in Thailand. Mehling suggested they broaden the scope of the project and shoot segments in Brazil, Thailand, Uganda, and the U.S. “We decided we were going to focus on one child’s story in each location,” says Corna, who also appears in each segment, interacts with the children and teaches them about the cinematic process by turning the camera over to them. “We didn’t really choose the child, the child chose us. It just kind of magically happened.”
In Northern Thailand at the Agape Home (also called Nikki’s Place), there was no doubt that child would be a young girl named Bow. She was born with HIV, fetal alcohol syndrome, and facial deformities. As a result, she was bullied and found it difficult to fit in with the other children. But shining through all the challenges she faces is Bow’s spirit. Her will to live is unflappable; her need for love is insatiable; and her desire to “look normal” is her driving force. With a winsome smile and a precious giggle, Bow steals every viewer’s heart. After undergoing surgery in Germany to improve her appearance, Bow wasn’t satisfied with the results and needed more cosmetic surgery to help her look like the rest of the kids. Doctors in Thailand were reluctant to operate on Bow because she’s HIV-positive and deemed her “not worth it.”
After seeing the movie, a group of doctors in Dallas agreed to undertake the costly procedure, which included two surgeries, for free. A Smile for Bow, the sequel to Tiny Tears scheduled to premiere at Cannes in 2013, tells the story of this girl’s miraculous physical and emotional transformation. Bow is just one of many abandoned children who found a better life at places like Agape. “When they started the orphanage in Thailand, it was a place for these children to go to die,” a caregiver at the home discloses. “Now it’s a place for children to go and live with the disease.”
The next location for Tiny Tears was Uganda, where there are approximately one million AIDS orphans. Antiretroviral drugs are provided by the government for free, but in some remote villages, “they can’t get medications or condoms,” Mehling asserts. “They are cut off from society.” He was optimistic, however, when he first saw the conditions at the Juna Amagara orphanage. “They are often better off than kids in regular family units. They’re getting the medications and care they need.” According to Juna Amagara director Ben Tumuheirwe, the children there receive something else that’s vital as well. “Hope has been the sustaining thread of life.”
In Rio de Janeiro, the center of the AIDS epidemic in Latin America, the crew set up at an orphanage established in memory of singer/songwriter Cazuza, one of the first Brazilian celebrities to speak out about being HIV-positive. At Casa Cazuza a little boy named Fabiano instantly became the center of attention. Afflicted with sickle cell anemia and HIV, this four-year-old never shows his suffering. Dancing, laughing and playing with other kids, Fabiano’s joyful glow surrounds him wherever he goes. “Society is saying these kids are not worthy of our love, or that it’s scary to love them,” claims Casa Cazuza director Avis Rideout, who believes in the healing power of touch and compassion. Her message to the children is simply, “You’re worthy of our love. We love you the way you are.”
After shooting a segment in the U.S. at Camp Dreamcatcher, a weeklong summer camp outside Philadelphia for young people affected by HIV, Mehling and his company transported one child from each of the orphanages to be a part of the Camp Dreamcatcher experience. “I just wanted to run a camp where they could be like any other kid and not keep the secret of HIV,” explains founding director Patty Hillkirk.
Bringing in children with HIV from other countries wasn’t easy, but it turned out to be an unforgettable time for everyone. “They realize they don’t even speak the same language but they are so similar,” says Corna. The kids bonded with each other and their caregivers, and also with the crew—especially Corna. “We thought we were prepared, but the one thing I didn’t plan on was the goodbyes, which were very powerful and sad because we got very close to these kids.”
Tiny Tears was produced by Industrial Motion Pictures (IMP), a documentary film company established by Mehling and producer Eddie Amarante, and Corndog Films, Corna’s production company. Narrated by Danny Glover [A&U, June 2002], it premiered at the United Nations and the Cannes Film Festival in 2008. With screenings across the U.S., Tiny Tears has received multiple awards, including Best Documentary Feature at the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival in 2009 and the audience award for Best International Documentary at the New York International Independent Film & Video Festival in 2011.
The aim of the filmmakers is to raise awareness about the global plight of children orphaned by AIDS and to help facilitate better healthcare, education, and support for these children. Mehling and Amarante founded the Blue Horizons Foundation to provide resources to children and adults in areas affected by disease and war. The foundation’s goal is to establish a network of hospitals worldwide offering top-notch healthcare and the latest advances in medical procedures, including new technology in alternative stem cell therapy, which Dr. Mehling has been involved with developing for the treatment of neurological diseases. Blue Horizon also raises funds for productions like Tiny Tears as well as A Smile for Bow.
Reaction to the first documentary has been overwhelmingly positive. “People think it’s going to be so sad, but when they see it they are so moved and inspired,” Corna observes. Many audience members come out of screenings asking what they can do to help. “It’s more than a film. This movie has changed people’s lives.”
The landmark motion picture features more than sixty minutes of original music composed by twin brothers Andrew and Jared DePolo, who blend the culture and heritage of each country into a moving cohesive score. The first line of the opening theme song sums up the fundamental message of Tiny Tears, “I Want to Live”—or as one of the children at Camp Dreamcatcher declares, “We ain’t done yet.”
For more information about Tiny Tears and A Smile for Bow, visit industrialmotionpictures.com.
Chip Alfred is Editor at Large of A&U and a nationally published freelance journalist living in Philadelphia.