Lance Bangs’ HBO documentary The Lazarus Effect doesn’t bury its lede. In the opening scene, a Zambian woman retells the Biblical story of Lazarus—how Jesus raised an old friend from the dead—and then the movie cuts to a montage of the vibrant daily life in Sub-Saharan Africa under on-screen titles that express in clear, unambiguous terms how the right medication can transform the HIV-infected from walking corpses to healthy, productive individuals. Over 20 million people have died of HIV/AIDS since the epidemic began, and 20 million more are infected today. But as programs like (Red), the UN’s Global Fund, and the Bush administration’s PEPFAR have worked to provide the citizenry with free antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), there’s been a dramatic, visible turnaround in the lives and health of millions.
So The Lazarus Effect is a straight-up advocacy doc, designed to get anyone who watches it to open their wallets. And it’s remarkably effective at that. Bangs focuses on a few infected adults and children: most dramatically a diminutive 11-year-old who looks like she’s about 5, and a woman who lost all three of her children to the disease and is now haunted by the thought that one of them could’ve made it if she’d held on long enough for the various ARV programs to kick in. The film is short—just over 30 minutes—and unambiguous in its message that it doesn’t take much to make a huge difference.
Most importantly, Bangs doesn’t emphasize the squalor of impoverished African communities the way so many documentaries (and late-night informercials) do. The Lazarus Effect is beautifully shot: it’s colorful, energetic and driven by a joyous Afrobeat soundtrack. Rather than having a concerned celebrity walk through a rickety village pointing at sick people, Bangs lets the people tell their own stories, in between scenes of a rich urban life of recreation, community and industry. The problem with a lot of isn’t-it-a-pity? docs is that they paint situations as so dire that they often inadvertently discourage action, because they make it look as though those we help to save will only be restored to a life of misery. The Lazarus Effect offers a different perspective, showing how a small donation can help return people to the friends, parents, siblings, children and co-workers who love them and rely on them. It’s not about how terrible everything is, but how fixable.
The Lazarus Effect airs tonight on HBO at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, and will be re-run frequently in the weeks to come. Make time for it; it’s 30 minutes well-spent. Or if you’d rather cut to the chase, you can find more details about how to contribute at the HBO site or at (Red).