Friday, February 20, 2009

Oscar-nominated documentary short looks at efforts to eradicate polio in developing world

You can view the trailer for "The Final Inch" here. The BBC has a profile of Gulzar Saifi (pictured), who is featured in the documentary about the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

Gulzar Saifi will discover this weekend whether the story of his battle to cope with the ravages of polio will bring a coveted Oscar award.

The 26-year-old Indian is the protagonist of The Final Inch - a 38-minute documentary by American director Irene Taylor Brodsky that has been nominated for a statuette in the short documentary category.

The film follows polio workers across India as they vaccinate children in an effort to eradicate the virus.

Tucked away in a little corner in Meerut town in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh is the Muslim-dominated Dhavaia Nagar colony.

Here, children run around a little square, a vegetable seller calls out the prices of cauliflower and carrots. Housewives come out to bargain and buy.

This is where Gulzar Saifi lives.

Saifi contracted the polio virus when he was six months' old. He had not been vaccinated - people in his village were largely illiterate and there was little awareness.

"When I was born, my family celebrated. It was a joyous occasion - I was the sixth son for my parents and we have a saying which means someone with six sons has six crutches to lean on."

But their happiness was short-lived. Polio, Saifi says, destroyed his family.

"Once I caught polio, my father went into shock. He lost his mental balance and never recovered and died in 2005."

With his father ill, Saifi was raised by his mother and elder brothers. Till he turned 10, he crawled on his fours "like a baby", he says.

His brothers took him to school on their bicycles and sometimes even carried him on their backs. Thanks to their perseverance, Saifi completed school and college education. He is a post-graduate in economics and runs a teaching centre from a tiny room near his home.

"My family has been a great support, since my childhood. They never ever let me feel that I was physically challenged. They always supported me, they always gave me courage.

"My mother always said - if you have courage, you can do anything."

At midday, as we sit chatting in Saifi's teaching centre, the sound of azaan (the Muslim call to prayer) from the local mosque drifts in.

Saifi says the starring role in The Final Inch came to him by chance - it was "Allah's rehmat" (God's grace).

"It was because of this azaan that I met director Irene Taylor Brodsky," he explains.

Ms Brodsky was in the area with her team to record an azaan.

"I went to her and asked her why she was there. We talked for a couple of minutes. We didn't need a translator. I think she was quite impressed by me. Then she came out of the car and we chatted for 40 minutes standing by the roadside.

"She asked me if I would work in her film on polio. I thought Allah was giving me this chance, this golden opportunity to serve humanity. So I discussed it with my family and we took it up."

After the film's nomination for the Oscars, Saifi says his life has changed completely.

"I started receiving calls from people telling me that I was the real hero. Reporters called up to say, 'we're coming to interview you, please be ready'. I can't tell you how I felt at that time. I've received so many visitors since then. People say, 'My god, you're a dark horse.' Now I've become famous all over the world."

The film has also brought him some material benefit.

"After the film was made, many new students came to join my teaching centre. Not many were aware that I was educated and fluent in English. Today, my neighbours tell their children to study hard and become like me."

An encounter with Saifi brings you up close and personal with the destructive
impact of polio. He wears calipers and walks with the support of a battered old iron walker. He is 26, but sometimes has to crawl.

"Look, you can climb up the stairs on foot, but I have to use my hands too," he tells me.

India is not friendly for disabled people and it's not easy for someone with a disability to move freely. Saifi has petitioned the authorities for a hand-operated tricycle many times, but all he has received so far are empty promises.

Despite the odds, Saifi smiles easily and is mostly cheerful. But look a little deeper, and painful memories come pouring out.

"My mother died in 2002 and my father died three years later. My biggest regret is that I could not carry their body on my shoulder. I've not even shared these feelings with my family because I don't want them to feel the pain."

Saifi says polio is not a disease, it's a "disaster".

"A few years ago, I enrolled my name for a blood donation camp. When my turn came, the doctors told me they had enough blood and that they didn't need any more. When I persisted, they told me they didn't need my blood because I had polio. I was shattered, I wept for a long time."

When Saifi got the offer to appear in The Final Inch, he was thrilled. Today, as the film vies for an Oscar, he is ecstatic.

"Earlier my family and I used to work on an individual level. But today, I am invited to speak from a larger platform, so I am able to reach a wider audience. I can create awareness about this deadly disease."

Saifi's home state of Uttar Pradesh has been the darkest corner in the world's fight against polio. Of the 549 polio cases in India last year, 297 were in Uttar Pradesh.

Extreme poverty, dismal hygienic conditions and resistance by the state's Muslim community to the vaccination drive have all contributed to the problem.

Rumours that the polio vaccine is actually a form of birth control and part of a Western conspiracy to reduce the Muslim birth rate have led to many families shunning it in Uttar Pradesh.

Saifi says people need to realise that polio is "religion-less".

"Polio is a dangerous thing for the entire world. It's not a problem for a particular country or a community. Many say polio drops will destroy our community, but that's not true. Polio doesn't affect someone thinking this person is a Hindu or this person is a Muslim."

Saifi says if The Final Inch wins the Oscar, it will encourage those who are working for polio eradication and also help in creating awareness against the disease.

For his part, Saifi hopes the film will win the Oscar.

"If a person doesn't hope, he's finished. Hope is very important. I'm confident the film will definitely get an Oscar."