AT a recent cocktail party at her parents' Hollywood Hills home, Ann Reiner looked scared. While the daughter of former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner is used to the public spotlight, it's usually not pointed at her.
Wearing a floral print dress and combat boots, Reiner nervously twisted her silver rings as her father introduced her to about 60 business leaders in entertainment, media and politics. Perhaps it was the fading light in the lush, overgrown backyard, but the white-haired, gravelly voiced former prosecutor looked like he had tears in his eyes. Then he turned the evening over to Ann, who had just flown 8,000 miles from Sudan.
Reiner, 31, is trying to create a program through which the Sudanese can document their lives on videotape, telling their own stories, in their own words, to the people who could benefit most from them -- other Sudanese. The project will put cameras in the hands of those who have experienced the genocides, the HIV epidemic or gender-based violence first-hand. Reiner believes the minidocumentaries they create will be invaluable teaching tools.
"Rape, female circumcision, forced marriage, domestic violence, AIDS" -- Ann Reiner's words hung in the evening air. Her voice was dispassionate as she listed the atrocities she deals with on the American Refugee Committee. But Reiner is anything but disconnected. "There are times when I'm confronted with a story, or something happens, and it gets to me," she said of her work as the health sector manager in South Sudan and Uganda. She oversees HIV prevention, immunizations, the prevention of gender-based violence, reproductive healthcare, primary healthcare, latrine construction, health and hygiene education, and small-business and vocational training.
"But you can't let each one get to you, and you have to develop a black sense of humor to keep your sanity," she said.
Home for Reiner's first two years there was a fenced-in compound with generator-produced electricity and no running water. She has contracted malaria three times ("You feel like someone's kicking your head in"), and was almost killed when her SUV went so horizontal on a washed-out roadway her face nearly dragged in the mud ("Those are the times when I think, 'My mother is right, this is no place for a nice Jewish girl!' "). But ask her if she'll ever move back to Los Angeles and Reiner's answer is a definitive "no."
A hot Sudan night, a cold beer and a conversation with a friend are what sparked Reiner's idea and her trip back to her parents' Hollywood home. Why not combine her new life among African poverty, disease and violence with her old one of Hollywood moviemaking, politics and power?
Reiner shrugged off the notion that funneling the ARC's already-stretched resources into video cameras, televisions and teachers is less valuable than spending on medicine, sanitation or trauma counseling. "There are other ways to spend the money, of course," she said. "But education is a huge necessity, and the idea of film is so entrancing."
In fact, one of the ARC's HIV-prevention programs brings generators, televisions and VCRs to poor villages where watching videotapes is a curious novelty. Reiner said people come from miles away to watch the AIDS-awareness tapes, fascinated by the power of television. But the lessons they teach, Reiner said, don't resonate for most Sudanese because they're out of context, often shot using actors in foreign cities. One plotline, for example, revolves around a young woman going into a disco in downtown Nairobi, Kenya. "The young girls in the village who are not getting enough to eat, who will be faced with different issues, like soldier rape -- they have no ability to relate to a situation that takes place in downtown Nairobi," she said.
But let those same villagers watch one of their own telling a story on videotape and the response changes dramatically. "I've seen the people," she said softly, "their eyes just go aghast when they realize this is a Sudanese woman whom this has happened to and that this could happen to me."
As examples of the movie power she's trying to harness, Reiner showed her guests two short videotapes. One, "Through Our Eyes," is an ARC film shot in the Laine refugee camp in Guinea.
A woman tells of being forced into marriage at age 13, then being cast out by her husband and family when she got pregnant. She stares at the camera and describes giving birth outside in complete darkness, then having to wash her own filthy, bloodstained clothes. "Who it ever happen to?" she asks in an emotionless voice. "But it happened to me." The films are raw, clumsy and hard to understand but also powerful and thought-provoking.
When the screening ended, Reiner said, "I don't need money, I need ideas" and got a laugh. She got her wish from people such as producer Mace Neufeld ("Sahara," "Hunt for Red October"), who suggested finding a corporation to underwrite her project in exchange for the rights to film a documentary about it. Geoffrey Cowan, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at USC, suggested looking for funding through media grants.
The brainstorming session, she said, helped her realize she has to think big: "It was all about turning on a light bulb."
Reiner's frequent e-mails home tell the story of a woman intensely interested in assimilating into Sudanese culture. She has written of learning Arabic ("I'm mostly limited to simple greetings and counting to 10") and of her 29th birthday party held in the town of Yei ("We'll probably kill and roast a goat, have some beers and cake").
A year and a half later, Reiner wrote that Sudan feels like home. "I'm used to the noises of the bush and the hum of the generator; ... used to walking among soldiers wearing flip-flops and carrying AK-47s; used to the searing heat and stunning sunsets; used to traveling through three countries in one day, in the amount of time it would take to drive across L.A. County in rush hour traffic; used to the rule of jungle law or no law at all; used to Africanizing my English; used to not being understood and not understanding; ... used to not asking why because there is simply no logic; ... used to being asked how many cows would someone have to pay my father in order to marry me; ... used to the quiet nights and brilliant stars." Her next line began, "And I am still learning so much."
"A whore for substance" is how Cathee Weiss, a friend of Ann Reiner who's been in the documentary business for 15 years, described her. "She's 31 years old and whatever she's doing, she's not hanging out on Melrose sipping a latte."
At the party, Weiss connected Reiner to a group that is producing a feature-length documentary on Darfur, Sudan, including Academy Award nominee Don Cheadle, hoping the connection will generate ideas. "She's going to need help," Weiss said. "She's trying to create a media infrastructure in a place where there is none."
Reiner's biggest hurdle now is getting financing. She's already secured half of the $30,000 estimated start-up cost from the nonprofit group Family Health International; the other $15,000 has been pledged by the United Nations. But Reiner is skeptical that the U.N. money will ever get to her, because pet projects such as hers often aren't seen as priorities. If it doesn't, Reiner says she will continue to pitch her project publicly, once again bending the ears, probing the minds and opening the checkbooks of her contacts in L.A. "It seems right to use those connections," Reiner said. "It's a grass-roots thing."