By Mark Bell | August 5, 2010

Lance Bangs’ half-hour documentary focuses on how the distribution of free antiretroviral (ARV) medication has helped save the lives of HIV/AIDS patients in Zambia. Since 2003, free ARV medication has been distributed to at least 250,000 people in Zambia and three million across sub-Saharan Africa.

Prior to the free medication distribution, HIV/AIDS exacted a damaging toll on the African continent, with more than 20 million people dying since the pandemic took root. The film implies that if the ARV medication were only available at its very high retail price, the death toll would be even greater.

“The Lazarus Effect” profiles several HIV-positive Zambian adults and children whose access to free ARV prescriptions resulted in a resurrection worthy of the Biblical figure cited in the title. Of course, the battle is nowhere near over: an average of 3,800 people in Africa are dying from AIDS every day, and health education is still sorely lacking in Zambia and, we are led to assume, elsewhere on the continent.

This is a very well made film, and Bangs deserves praise for allowing the African people to tell their own story without the intrusion of well-meaning Western interlopers or melodramatic narrators. One could quibble about using English subtitles for the English-speaking Zambians, since their accents are not incomprehensible.

However, the film seems to avoid a much bigger picture. There is no mention of what (if anything) is being done by the African governments, the World Health Organization and the Red Cross to alleviate the chaos brought by the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. Even worse, “The Lazarus Effect” concludes with a blatant plug for viewers to financially support the effort to make free ARV medication available in Africa; this makes the film seem more like a commercial than a documentary. While this pass-the-hat effort was clearly done with the best of intentions, it spoils an otherwise effective short film.

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