NEW YORK (Reuters) - A single phone call prompted Madonna to begin charity work in Malawi and it was while making a documentary on the African country’s 1 million orphans that she found a baby she decided to adopt.
Premiering at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday, “I Am Because We Are,” which was written, produced and narrated by Madonna, looks at the plight of the children orphaned by the AIDS crisis in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Her interest in Malawi began about two years ago after she was contacted by a businesswoman, born and raised in the country, through a mutual friend. “She said it was a state of emergency,” Madonna says in the film. “She sounded exhausted and on the verge of tears. I asked her how I could help.
“She said: ‘You’re a person with resources. People pay attention to what you say and do.’ I felt embarrassed. I told her I didn’t know where Malawi was. She told me to look it up on a map and then she hung up on me,” said Madonna, 49.
She educated herself on Malawi and the result is a charity for the country’s orphans called Raising Malawi and the 94-minute documentary from first-time director Nathan Rissman.
“It was during filming, during researching these different orphanages, that she found David,” Rissman said in an interview.
David is the Malawian boy Madonna and her film director husband, Guy Ritchie, are adopting. He has lived with the couple in London since shortly after the adoption process began about 18 months ago. Malawi’s government, which has been criticized for giving the singer-actress preferential treatment, has recommended the adoption be approved and a hearing on that is set for May 15.
“I Am Because We Are” shows footage of David being cared for by a 9-year-old girl with HIV at the Home of Hope orphanage in Malawi.
In the documentary, Madonna says David’s mother had died in childbirth, three of his siblings had died and no one knew the whereabouts of his father. When she returned to the orphanage three months after first seeing him, Madonna said the baby “had pneumonia, malaria and God knows what else” with no medicine to treat him.
“What was I prepared to do?” she asks in the film. “If I was challenging other people to open up their minds and their hearts then I had to stand at the front of the line. I decided to try and adopt him. The rest is history.”
There is controversy behind that history. Critics accused the government of skirting laws that ban non-residents from adopting children in Malawi. David’s father came forward, saying he had only placed the child in the orphanage temporarily, but he has since given approval for the adoption.
Rissman, who started working for Madonna as a research assistant several years ago, said he has made up to 10 trips to Malawi in the past two years to make the documentary, which had started with a vision by Madonna to shine a light on Malawi’s problems but also offer people ways to help.
“If you are going to wake people up you have to show them what to do,” Rissman said. “Our idea was to ... show them the desperate situation but to (also) show them the joy and then point them in the direction of the experts who can help facilitate this time of crisis.”
Among those interviewed are former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, Paul Farmer of the Harvard Medical School and Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute and special U.N. adviser.
“We decided to make this film to remind people how interconnected we are, to show that I have to be the best that I can be to help somebody in Malawi, in India ... in my own backyard,” Rissman said.
Editing by Daniel Trotta and Bill Trott