When CliffDwellers and television producers Andrea “Sid” Curtis and James Cook first learned of the tsunamis that devastated Southeast Asia in December 2004, the news hit them with the same force as the waves that forever changed the profile of the region’s coastlines.
With reports of what would eventually turn out to be more than 230,000 deaths pouring in, the two entertainment professionals and community activists, in New York for the holidays at the time, knew they wanted to help — and by offering more than simply money. “We started calling all the aid organizations — every one of them in the book — asking how we could help,” states Curtis, whose music-industry credits range from serving as a lighting designer for musician Lou Reed to, more recently, a lengthy stint as studio art director for MTV’s Times Square Studios. “In the beginning, nobody seemed all that interested. They just said, ‘Send us donations. That’s what we need now.’ But that wasn’t good enough.”
Undeterred, they pressed on — and, within a few days, found themselves in the service of Food for Life (www.ffl.org), the world’s largest vegetarian food relief organization. “When we contacted them, they said yes and, almost before we knew it, we were headed to Sri Lanka,” says Cook, a musician and craftsman who, among his many credits, created the innovative “instruments” used by the popular performance troupe Blue Man Group and has designed props for New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The couple underwrote the cost of their own travel, carrying only basic necessities, some money and their own video equipment.
As they winged their way to the subcontinent, they knew they were in for the experience of a lifetime — but they had no idea how much their involvement in the relief effort would change them. Two years later, the two find themselves completing post-production on a moving documentary — their first, both individually and as a collaborative team — about a Sri Lankan orphanage and the woman at its helm. “We always knew we were going to do some shooting, we just weren’t sure what we’d get or where it would lead,” recalls Curtis. “And, for the first couple of weeks, really we were so busy we didn’t have time to think beyond the immediate needs on the ground in Sri Lanka.” When they hit the ground, they threw themselves into the relief effort, working 20-hour days serving vegetarian meals to the Sri Lankans most impacted by one of the largest natural disasters the world has seen in more than a century.
“We worked nonstop, preparing and serving food on the back of a truck that moved from place to place,” reports Cook, who cut his teeth in television at MTV’s 42nd Street studios and ran his own studios and crews at VH-1 and A&E/History Channel, where he eventually became a stage manager and director. “After a couple of weeks, though, there was so much we wanted to document — so much we felt like we needed to capture — that we started shooting.” To call the conditions in-country rough would be an understatement. “It was definitely guerilla filmmaking,” Curtis asserts. Early into their trip, the two were introduced to a Sri Lankan woman, Nandarani Devi, who had established and was running an orphanage providing care for scores of now-homeless children. Devi, known affectionately as Amma (the word for mother in both the Tamil and Sinhala languages), originally established the Bhaktivedanta Children’s Home, or Gokulam, to house orphaned children from both sides of Sri Lanka’s longstanding ethnic conflict. After the disaster, Gokulam had immediately opened its doors to the youngest casualties of the tsunami and, as a result, found itself struggling to cope with overwhelming need.
After they met Nandarani, they began to visit the home for meals in an effort to acclimate the children to their presence — and, eventually, began to shoot videotape. As they gathered more and more footage at Gokulam, the couple knew they had found a subject worthy of not just their own, but the world’s, attention. Months later, upon their return to the US, they began piecing together their videotape into a cohesive documentary with a view to using the eventual film to raise money for the orphanage. To help them along the way, the two co-founded Oak Cliff-based Simba Share, Inc. (www.simbashare.org), a 501c(3), not-for profit organization dedicated to leveraging film and the media to raise awareness of critical cultural, environmental and social needs and events.
One of Simba Share’s first successes was soliciting the donated participation in and support for the documentary, titled “Amma,” from noted actors and musicians. Texas-born actor F. Murray Abraham narrates the film, and the soundtrack comprises folk and pop-music tracks, including a cover of the song “If I Had a Hammer” by Dallas-born singer and guitarist Trini Lopez. Austin’s KRLU radio station is also donating its time to the production, and handling audio post for the film, for which the duo are seeking a distribution deal aimed at generating funds to continue Amma’s work at Gokulam.
As they work to put the finishing touches on “Amma,” the two have also branched out into other media initiatives. Working through his own Dallas-based outlet, Hot Genre, Inc., Cook also recently produced a documentary about spirituality featuring a close personal friend, noted psychologist and spiritualist Dr. Stanley Krippner. The film, which features music by former Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart, is set for release later this year.
“Everything that’s happened since we went to Sri Lanka is unbelievably exciting and rewarding,” says Curtis. “‘Amma’ is a great start, and we plan to keep looking for more projects that allow us to promote understanding and support causes near and dear to our hearts.”
To donate to Simba Share or the Bhaktivedanta Children’s Home, please visit www.simbashare.org. To support the work of vegetarian food relief nonprofit Food for Life, visit www.ffl.org.