Richard Curtis on HBO’s Mary and Martha | By Kristi York Wooten | ATLANTA MAGAZINE
When was the last time you had a good, cathartic cry while watching a movie?
Last week at the Carter Center in Atlanta, I attended a premiere for the new HBO film, Mary and Martha (which also runs on the cable network April 25 in honor of World Malaria Day). The room was filled with top scientific minds and malaria researchers, many of whom have helped establish Atlanta (home to the CDC and previously the U.S. Office of Malaria Control in War Areas) as ground zero for global health. These folks are keenly aware of the statistics about deadly parasitic illnesses (in 2013, 3.3 billion people are at risk for being infected with malaria; currently, 90 percent of deaths from malaria occur in Africa), yet as they watched actresses Hilary Swank and Brenda Blethyn portray two moms who struggle to overcome their grief after losing sons to malaria in Mary and Martha, the auditorium was reduced to a pile of Kleenex and sniffles.
That’s not to say Mary and Martha, a beautiful, Richard Curtis-penned travelogue shot mostly on location in South Africa, is an inherently sad movie. The film does — and should — have an emotional impact, especially on parents, because it deals with the sudden, tragic loss of a child. But the movie also evokes tears of satisfaction and joy when Swank’s Mary turns her grief into political willpower.
The film features a scene in which Swank’s character lobbies for malaria prevention funding during a Senate committee meeting on Capitol Hill, and should hit home with American activists and ONE campaign members who’ve spent the better part of a decade successfully hounding politicians to pursue Millennium Development Goal #6 (malaria deaths, by the way, have been reduced by 25% globally since 2000).
If you’re someone who believes you shouldn’t worry about malaria, a disease declared eliminated from the United States in 1951, you’re partially right. You live in a country where you don’t have to fear dying every time you get a mosquito bite. Yet, seeing Mary and Martha will make you care about how controlling and, ultimately, eliminating malaria from other countries yields a more productive, stable, and happy world for all of us.
Richard Curtis (best known to most of you as the writer behind Brit hit flicks such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually) has been doing his part to fight disease and poverty since the mid-1980s. That’s when he, like many of us, was so moved by the images of the famine in Ethiopia and the grand charitable gestures of Bob Geldof that he “bought 20 copies” of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” marveled at the impact of Live Aid, traveled to Africa to see for himself, and went on to co-found Comic Relief, an organization that supports development work in 70 countries and has raised more than a billion dollars since 1985.
Although a 2005 TIME magazine article about his involvement with Live8 and the push to increase government aid to Africa labeled Curtis (along with Geldof and U2’s Bono) as one of the “Pooh-bahs of Poverty“, he assures his Mary and Martha script was based on personal travel experiences, not celebrity peer pressure.
“There’s an autobiographical element in Mary and Martha of going from knowing nothing to wanting to do something yourself,” Curtis says. “In the film, when Mary says, ‘Can’t we move to a smaller house and give our money away?’ that section has been about the last 15 -20 years of my life.”
Some may see Mary and Martha as a vehicle to promote foreign aid, but that doesn’t bother Curtis. He “profoundly rejects” the notion that charities utilizing celebrities as mouthpieces — whether as award-winning actresses in film such as Mary and Martha or onstage at concerts — is a crutch, noting that a recent Comic Relief event featuring Adele raised 9 million pounds.
“If you walk up to anyone on the street and say, ‘Give me a day of your time, and I can assure you it will raise 250,000 pounds and buy 25,000 malaria nets that will save lives,’ I think it’d be one in 1,000 who’d say no.”
It’s unfortunate that it takes a film about a white American boy dying from malaria to hammer home the point to moviegoers that the lives of all children — all people — no matter where they live or the color of their skin, are equally valuable. Yet, Mary and Martha does just that. No mom will walk away from this film with a dry eye, neither should anyone else. So, this World Malaria Day, see the film. Cry. Then take action … because you can.
Mary and Martha plays on HBO April 25 and on additional days this month; check your local listings for details.
For more of my interview with Richard Curtis, see below.
(This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post and redirects here)
When was the moment you realized you wanted to get involved with Africa and development? I heard it was in the early 1980s. Were you also as affected by the BBC footage of the famine in Ethiopia as Bob Geldof was?
I blame Bob. I remember being in my garden and watching Live Aid and Band Aid and feeling like I should be involved. I met someone who said they were heading out to the Sudan, and I found myself going with him. I ended up in Ethiopia for three weeks. This was when the famine was still very bad in Ethiopia, so I did see very terrible things – really close up – which changed my life completely. It was a slightly casual incident that led to a lifelong commitment.
In Mary and Martha and the Girl in the Café, the dialogue relies heavily on the notion that governments and activists can make the most difference when it comes aid/relief. Where does that leave the NGOs?
NGOs are hugely important. There’s an autobiographical element in Mary and Martha of knowing nothing to wanting to do something yourself. [In the film, when Mary says], “Can’t we move to a smaller house and give our money away?” That section of the film has been about the last 15 -20 years of my life. When I got back from Ethiopia, I co-founded Comic Relief, which led to something called Red Nose Day, which is a seven-hour TV program and raises money. I’m incredibly passionate about individuals fundraising and with their 5 pounds sterling, buying a [mosquito] net and saving a life. That’s what I believe in. Those events now have raised over a billion dollars from individuals. You should transfer that to putting pressure on the government, and say that [the public] really do care. There are ways of making a huge amount of difference. So asking the government to step in as representatives of the people and give money in their own way, which is often a lot more money than individual giving. But I was very struck by Bob Geldof saying to me when I first met him, that he’d made more money over a cup of coffee in 45 minutes with [former French] President Mitterrand than he did in the whole of Band Aid and Live Aid put together. That doesn’t mean you don’t believe in the other stuff, because the NGOs get their hands dirty and learn what works, and what doesn’t work. I completely believe in the transference of small amounts of money from one individual to another individual. If you’re buying someone a net, it could save a life.
Did you find that the characters of Mary and Martha – one American and the other British – are symbolic of the way activists and NGOs in our countries work together in the fight, especially against malaria?
Well, that’s a very interesting idea. I hadn’t really thought about it being symbolic. With those two women, I wanted to show that they’d (at the start of the film) be the last two you’d expect to get involved [as activists fighting to fund malaria prevention and treatment]. When they are faced by the reality of it, it’s inevitable that they get involved.
Do you think Brits or Americans are more skeptical about foreign aid?
I don’t know. The public doesn’t think very hard about foreign aid. They think more about whether they’ll get involved with a particular charity whose story they believe. I’ve heard a statistic that if you ask a member of the public how much of the taxpayers’ money they think the government gives to foreign aid, they’d say about 15%. As we know, it’s well under 1%. So, I think there’s not a great understanding of it. When you see how much a relatively small amount of money in terms of the huge amounts of money governments spend could make such a spectacular difference, you’ve got to believe that at some point, there will come a government that takes a leap.
As a mom and someone who was greatly impacted by Live Aid, what I loved and Martha was this idea of focusing in on motherhood. The dialogue captured that beautifully. Toward the end of the film, when Mary (played by Hilary Swank) speaks at a committee meeting on Capital Hill to lobby for more money to support efforts to fight malaria, that made it feel very real for me – been there, done that, in a way – but also that we activists are making a difference. Obviously, as a writer and a dad, you feel that regular people can make a difference, too.
I really believe that profoundly. The sad thing is, I call the little boy (who survives malaria near the end of the Mary and Martha film), because on Red Nose Day we showed a film about a boy named Paul who died of malaria. It was a really simple film, basically five shots. It was him, the drip, and his mom and his dad and just watching the final minutes of his life. I edited that movie, and when I just put focus on it, I can say with absolutely certainty that mothers and fathers in Africa feel the same intensity that we do. It was the absolute basis of Mary and Martha – that there can’t be any difference in the level of emotion [between white Westerners and Africans]. The thought that either by giving a bit of money or a bit of your time, you can stop that [death] from happening, is at the core of how I spend my time.
Celebrities have become such huge mouthpieces for charities, but why does it take a celebrity to get the point across?
I profoundly reject the cynical attitude about celebrities and charity. If you walk up to anyone on the street and say, “Give me a day of your time, and I can assure you it will raise 250,000 pounds and buy 25,000 malaria nets that will save lives,” I think it’d be one in 1,000 who’d say no.
How do you combine being a scriptwriter and a campaigner?
What I have tried to do over the years I hang on to my simplistic emotions. Once you started thinking in too complicated about the issues [that you’re campaigning for], you forget the very simple thing, which is that if 650,000 children were dying a year in America of a preventable disease [like malaria], it would be the greatest emergency, and it would be sorted out in a month. It’s an incomprehensible thing that this is happening in our world. In the same way we look back at slavery as bizarre and women not having the vote as bizarre, I hope our children will say, ‘ Seriously? When we were born, 2 million people were dying on hunger year and a million people were dying of malaria?’