What inspired you to make this piece?
TRAVIS is a documentary that casts light on the reality of the AIDS epidemic and how it decimates the lives of people. And how people struggle to survive. That's part of what I hope this film will begin to accomplish. Wake people up! Care for our children. Realize the devastation of minds and lives and of whole communities because of the AIDS epidemic. The project is a call to action. These are our communities, our children. Our children are dying. We must have more clinics, more treatment, more prevention, more education all around our country and globally.
The facts reported and issues raised in the documentary, I believe, are of national importance and concern. It is, at heart, a very human story, about the death of children, which we must stop; about the impact on children of the loss of their parents to AIDS; [and about] the loving and, at the same time, painful relationships between them.
And TRAVIS is not just for minority persons in minority communities. It's for everybody. It is just as important that working-class, middle-class white persons, the rich, and their children see and understand what the problems of America are; that the people who live in Highbridge are loving, as law-abiding as anybody, hard-working, intelligent, just like all of us. This is a role a film can play. The forces of illusion, disregard, hatred are everywhere, pushed on by most of our media.
We have to counteract this. Open peoples' eyes. It's our responsibility.
It is the role of a good documentary film in a democratic society.
Tell us a little about the process involved in making this work.
| From TRAVIS.
Travis Jefferies met me in 1995 at the Special Needs Clinic at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. Running out of his therapist's (Dr. Rabinowitz's) office, he stopped, smiled that big smile and said: "Hi! Who are you?" "I'm Rich." "Rich? Rich who?" "Rich, the guy with the video camera. I'm making a documentary about the children in the hospital." "You are?" he said, slowly, softly, but with an excitement and fascination I've come to know so well and love so much. At that moment, I knew Travis was a special person. His persona jumps out at you. And I knew I wanted him in my film. What I didn't know was all the trouble and pain in his life.
The three years during which I've followed the life of Travis Jefferies resulted in about 300 hours of footage. The genesis of TRAVIS was an all-encompassing one for me: emotionally, as a film maker, and as a person who became best friends with and came to love a little boy with AIDS. I've never made a documentary that is so personal. It is so frightening. It's like the "documentary" becomes inferior, much less important than life. Sure, I will be there taping, no matter what. That's my job. But for the first time ever, doing my "job" is much less important than Travis [the subject].
Do you have any interesting and/or amusing behind-the-scenes stories about the making of this particular work?
| From TRAVIS.
A lot of "laughing to keep from crying" goes on. At a summer camp for children with AIDS, Mrs. Jefferies bunked with two other grandmas caring for AIDS-infected children. The honest, heartfelt, spontaneous conversations in that cabin are in the documentary. The grandmothers talk about their "children"; the mothers, [who] are dead or dying from AIDS; their fears for the future. "I don't know what would happen if I die. Who would take care of Travis?" . . . "Who would take care of Tamisha?" . . . "Who would take care of Khabril?"
And then, Mrs. Jefferies, Lula (one of the grandmothers), and I go fishing. This is something Mrs. Jefferies loves to do. We go to this tepid -- well, decrepit -- pond and she catches nothing. "Ain't nothin' in here! . . . Now Rich, you want to do it?" She instructs me. With great confidence I hoist the rod, camera in my other hand and swinging out, aiming for the far shore, I fall into the lake. Tape rolling and I am flat on my behind getting very wet. Those grandmas have a laugh on me! A little later on we're sitting on the bank. A car passes. Lula says, "I ain't seen no colored people down here in these cars. You?" "No," says Mrs. Jefferies. "White, they not black . . . Ain't nobody black up here but me, you and Richard." "That's all," says Lula. "Richard don't be payin' me no mind," says Mrs. Jefferies. "You know, Lula, Richard told me he was black." Lula: "He can be black. You don't look at this, y'know" (touching her arm). "That's right." "You don't look at the skin." Mrs. Jefferies: "You cut a person open, the blood be red. All the same color."
Is there a relationship between your work as a video/filmmaker and life in the New York metropolitan area?
AIDS is now the leading cause of death of children in New York City.
60,000 New York City children will have become AIDS orphans by the year 2000.
Travis Jefferies lives with his grandmother Mrs. Geneva Jefferies in the Highbridge neighborhood of the South Bronx, a predominantly African-American and Hispanic neighborhood. Highbridge is one of the poorest, drug-deracinated neighborhoods in America, overwhelmed by the AIDS epidemic: one in every 20 teenagers in Highbridge is infected. Despite his illness, Travis is well-known in Highbridge for his amazing smile and joyous personality. Highbridge is also a community that accepts, nurtures, and protects Travis. Cousins, friends, and neighbors are always on the lookout for him, anxious to see him, hear of his progress, or encourage him during his many difficult and seemingly endless medical treatments.
When Travis goes to the park, other mothers want their children to play with him; in fact, many insist on it. (And most adults in the neighborhood know Travis has AIDS.) A grandmother says: "Why should he be punished for something he had nothing to do with? [My grandchildren] can't get AIDS by playing with him, by touching him. I don't think he should have to suffer."
When Travis walks up the block, there are overlapping hellos, hugs, "How're you doin', baby?" Everybody here knows everybody else. There are addicts on some corners and kids playing on others. On Sundays, seven houses of worship open their doors. Above lots littered with crack vials and garbage, a parade of beautiful, wide-brimmed hats, blue/orange/yellow/red ribbons and flowers, flowing, elegant churchgoing dresses and smart suits for the mosque, form a parade of devoutness, self-esteem, pride, and a put-into-practice dedication to the teachings of God.
The cliche of a gangsta-rappin, deadly, uncaring minority community doesn't work. It's not like that. Highbridge is friendlier, more caring than my middle-class, Manhattan block. Nobody talks to you on my block. They're too busy with their careers. Their anonymity.
How has the burgeoning independent movement affected your life and work as a video/filmmaker?
The Independent Television Service (ITVS) provided major funding for the documentary. ITVS has been great. Their vision of what important, compelling television should be, constant support and availability, and dedication to the freedom of the independent filmmaker is truly unknown these days . . . I started on my own. I knew I had a special and valuable story. So I was hooked. You know what that means: you spend your own money. I went into my savings and credit cards to the tune of about $70,000. I had just enough left to produce a sample reel which Independent Feature Projects liked (thanks to God!), and IFP invited me to show it at the 1996 Market. The meetings IFP set up for me with film and television persons made it all happen. I met with Miramax, Fine Line, HBO, Turner, BET, Nonfiction Films, and David Liu of ITVS. David loved the reel and we were on our way! Talking, getting excited, knowing that real stories about real people and their communities were what television should be all about, solidified our relationship. With his help and that of all of ITVS, I negotiated a contract that allowed me to make the best film possible and has also made it possible to pay off my credit cards. By 2002, I should be able to buy a new Chevy Blazer and once again participate in the esteemed tradition of debt we all hold so dear.