On April 2, I attended the Chicago premiere of Hand Held, a documentary film directed and produced by Don Hahn (of animated and Disney Nature fame), which tells the story of photographer Michael Carroll and his crusade to help the children of Romania in the aftermath of the fall of communism through Carroll’s award-winning photography.
The film was screened by The Center for Religion and Public Discourse at Saint Xavier University as the inaugural Sweeney Family Lecture series. Hahn and Carroll were on hand for a Q&A session after the film, signing copies of the companion book Picturing the Possible and chatting at a small reception where university VIPs and special guests mingled with the filmmakers.
Hand Held does a brilliant job of using Carroll’s amazingly emotive photography to tell the story of his initial journey to Romania and the subsequent founding of his charity foundations: Romanian Children’s Relief and the Fondatia Incocenti (based in Romania).
The story begins on December 25, 1989–the day brutal dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were ousted and executed. Carroll made his first trip shortly after in February of 1990 with AmeriCares. As part of their mission the group visited the horrific government orphanages, each housing hundreds of children, many of whom were victims of pediatric AIDS, all of whom were malnourished and neglected.
It is a grim topic, but the agonizing fate of Romanian children told through Carroll’s stunning photography documenting the aid efforts of the RCR provides a balance in the documentary narrative. Carroll’s everyman heroics reveal a story of hope in the face of cruel adversary.
The melding of art and activism sets Hand Held apart from the array of inspiring documentaries out there. The focus on Carroll as an ordinary man on a mission proves that anyone can work for change, even with a lack of resources, know-how or a firm plan setting out.
The most striking part of the story—for me—was the grassroots beginning of RCR. The gathering of friends in Carroll’s home, trying to figure out a realistic way to help, collecting donations in-kind from doctor and neighbors, and the relatively low-budget of an organization based in the United States as well as Romania, helping thousands of children over the course of twenty years. It made me realize just how possible it is to help people, if you are really committed to working for change.
During the Q&A, Hahn and Carroll were quite forthcoming about the Hand Held experience. The audience was very engaged and brought a range of questions to the table, from inquiring further into the history of the orphanages to the current day-to-day of the RCR and Fondatia Inocenti, which are now primarily involved in fostering programs and programs for handicapped children in Romania.
The event not only brought out faculty, staff, students and others associated with Saint Xavier University, but a number of neighborhood community members including a young Romanian woman raised in an orphanage, who struggled for years to realize her dream of emigrating to the United States. Attending the screening was a difficult decision for her; in the end it seems that part of the reason she chose to come was in order to speak with Hahn and Carroll about putting the RCR in touch with some of her family members back in Romania who would be interested in getting involved with the Fondatia Inocenti.
Most of the RCR’s operations run out of the Romanian branch of the charity, recent years have focused on getting the local community in cities such as Bucharest involved in raising money and running programming for orphans and handicapped children.
Seeing Hand Held was a great experience, both for the inspiring story and the striking photography. The documentary is currently touring film festivals and university campuses. Hahn and Carroll seem very open to arranging screenings such as the one I attended, their contact information is on the Hand Held website. Additional clips of them movie are posted on YouTube.