TV Lab Director Kristin Pichaske was nearly done editing her feature documentary Zuluhoops last spring when she received a troubling email. One of the key people in the film, a young man named Khulekani Mthembu, had been attacked on his way home from work in Durban, South Africa by a stranger with a machete. Unable to get prompt medical attention, he had lost his arm. It was a devastating blow to the main character in a film about basketball — made far more devastating by the economic realities of his home country.
“The unemployment rate in South Africa hovers around 40%,” say Pichaske. “The chances of getting a job are slim to begin with. If you only have one arm, your chances are practically zero.”
The cost for a basic prosthetic: about $9,000.
“I knew no one else in Khulekani’s world would be able to raise that kind of money. And I knew how incredibly difficult his life would be without a prosthetic. It wasn’t a choice, really. I just had to figure out a way to raise that money.”
Pichaske tapped into the network she had built around the film, starting with her Kickstarter contributors. She created a GoFundMe page and within one week, she had $4,000. After that, things slowed. So on a recent trip to South Africa, she met with Khulekani, shot a short video with him thanking everyone who had donated and pledging to match new donations for the following two weeks.
“I wanted to make sure everyone I knew would see that post, so I shared it on my Facebook wall on my birthday — a day when I knew a lot of people would go there to post birthday wishes,” she explains.
Within three days, Pichaske had the rest of the money in hand. Eight weeks later, Khulekani was fitted with his new arm.
For Pichaske, whose work often involves documenting the lives of marginalized people in poor countries, it is a textbook case about how films can — and should — benefit their subjects and not only the careers of their makers.
“It’s so important to make a commitment to your subjects,” she argues. “When you work in disadvantaged communities, you have to be prepared to take on all sorts of added burdens. Once you have a meaningful, long-term relationship with your subjects, you can’t turn a blind eye when they are in trouble.”
Zuluhoops will have its California premiere at the American Documentary Film Festival next week and Pichaske is looking forward to sharing a new happy ending with audiences.