TPAC hosts Sons of Lwala, a documentary preview

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On Thursday, March 27, the Tennessee Performing Arts Center is hosting the first public showing of a film about the remarkable efforts of two Vanderbilt University medical students who sparked a movement to build a clinic in their home village in Kenya.

Sons of Lwala, produced by Barry Simmons follows Milton and Fred Ochieng’ as they travel between Africa and America, determined to honor their father’s memory by fulfilling his dream to build a health clinic for their people. So inspired by the Ochieng’ family and others in the village (who were traveling 25 miles on foot to the nearest doctor), Simmons left his work as a television reporter for Nashville’s WTVF NewsChannel 5 to create the documentary.  

Senator Bill Frist, M.D. is serving as Master of Ceremonies for the preview at TPAC, which begins at 7:30 p.m. and involves the band Jars of Clay, performing portions of the soundtrack onstage, where the film will be projected on a gigantic screen in Jackson Hall.

Larry Trabue is the event chair. Claire Armistead, Karyn Frist and Betty Stadler are co-chairing the host committee. Vanderbilt University is a sponsor of the event, in addition to providing support services to promote the documentary and to raise money for the Lwala clinic.

“TPAC is proudly involved in this project, in terms of both its artistic value and our mission to serve the community. Sons of Lwala is an outstanding documentary. The opening scenes with Milton, who has a remarkably magnetic personality, immediately draw you into the fascinating story. The scenes shot in Africa have an especially high impact. You learn a lot about Lwala, where there’s a sense of community unknown to most Americans,” said Kathleen O’Brien, TPAC’s president and chief executive officer.

“And I have to say something about Barry Simmons’ story, too. It’s inspiring to us that once he saw Lwala for himself, experienced that sense of community, he was compelled to quit his job and create this film. Imagine what it takes to do that, forgoing your own comfort and security. Fortunately, he soon received a fellowship to help cover his living expenses while he worked on the film, while Channel 5 management is to be commended for the support they provided, including access to production equipment and staff assistance after-hours,” O’Brien said.

The film’s director of photography, Iain Montgomery, has continued to work at Channel 5 while collaborating with Simmons on the documentary. The two received a regional Emmy Award for their two-part series on the water crisis in Kenya. Simmons received fellowships from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the International Reporting Project at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

The title of the film reflects how the elder brother has always referred to himself, signing letters “Milton Ochieng’, Son of Lwala,” even before the death of his parents, who were school teachers: “In Lwala, you’re not just the son of your parents. Here, you belong to everyone,” he says.

The Ochieng’ brothers were the first to leave their village to study in America, thanks to support from their community. The hopeful film captures their engaging personalities, passion and commitment, against the breathtaking scenic backdrop of rural Kenya and tracks their efforts to raise funds for the clinic, attracting the attention of Americans nationwide, from school children to celebrities.

Farming is the principal industry in Lwala, where an estimated 30 percent of the population is infected with the HIV virus. The infant mortality rate is one in five. Electricity is not available in the remote village, located in southwestern Kenya near Lake Victoria and the borders of Uganda and Tanzania. The nearest town is Rongo.

Tickets range from $30 to $100 and are available at www.tpac.org and the TPAC Box Office (downtown or at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in The Mall at Green Hills) and through Ticketmaster.