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Jason Russell: Filming the 'Invisible Children'

The 700 Club

Jason Russell graduated from El Cajon's Valhalla High and the film school at the University of Southern California in 2002. Jason had been transformed during a church trip to Kenya in 2000.

“My American bubble popped," he explained. "I suddenly realized we are the privileged percentage of the world. I knew I had to go back to Africa, because there are so many important, untold stories there."

So Jason asked every one of his friends to go with him. But only two of them took him up on his offer: fellow film student Bobby Bailey, 23, and Laren Poole, 22. The three guys bought a camera on eBay, did some research, got their shots and headed for Africa in March of 2003, on the day the United States invaded Iraq. They had no sponsorship, few contacts and no plan other than to find a story and film it. Using savings, money scraped up from a few friends and their parents' credit cards, they wandered from Sudan to Kenya at first. They got sick (scabies and malaria) and became exhausted in 130-degree heat. Jason admits they had no idea what they were doing.

"For the boys, it was like, 'OK, we're here. We want to start filming. Where are the guns and fighting?' " said Sheryl Russell, Jason's mom. "We were getting worried.”

Then one day, Jason called his mom and said, “Can we stay two more weeks? We've found our story."

The trio led by Jason had made their way to Uganda where they stumbled upon the terrified children of the north. Since 1986, children as young as 5, many of them orphaned by the AIDS epidemic, have been abducted by the rebel group Lord's Resistance Army or LRA. These children have been turned into fighters, porters and sex slaves, according to the UN. Those who resisted were brutalized or killed. Stories of ears or noses sliced off are not uncommon.

To protect themselves from capture at night, the children hide wherever they can. Jason and his friends followed the kids and befriended them so that the kids could tell their stories. Jason also interviewed government officials, learned about the mysterious origins of the war and the rebel groups fighting it and became determined to expose the tragedy to the world.

"The children of Northern Uganda are being killed and brutalized, and the fascinating thing to us is that no one is telling this story," says Jason. "This tragedy gets no international attention at all. We are going to change that.”

The result of Jason’s first trip is a documentary titled, Invisible Children, and the film is having the desired effect. Jason says that one thing that has both surprised and pleased him has been the response from young people born since 1980. Known as millennials, this demographic slice of society has opened its heart to the children in Uganda in some astounding ways.
In San Diego, high school students who've seen the film have given thousands for the cause. One girl was so moved she took $3,000 from the sale of her horse, which she was going to use to buy a used car. Another student raised $20,000 selling T-shirts, African crafts and baked goods at school and at a movie screening at her church. A recent Miss California winner saw the film and changed her career plans to move to Uganda and care for orphans there. Jason says many other “millennials” have decided to stay in Uganda. He believes these kids are the ones to change history in that part of the world.

Perhaps the most touching is the story of Zaphia Zaidi, a 19-year-old from Atlanta, GA. In an email to Jason, Zaphia describes herself as having grown up “around the world.” She became engaged to Matthew earlier this year. Unlike Zaphia, Matthew knew only California and most specifically his home city of San Diego. The couple saw Invisible Children, and Zaphia talks about how it opened her fiancé’s heart to the needs of the world. He had no knowledge of such tragedy and suffering in the world.

On October 2nd, Matthew was shipped out to Iraq. Among his letters to Zaphia he wrote, “I kept thinking about those invisible children, and I see them here too in Iraq. I need you to send me boxes of crayons. I’m going to teach them how to read and write….” In another letter he wrote of having to destroy a dog and his feeling that he probably couldn’t bring himself to shoot another human being.

Matthew was killed by an IED on November 15th, just 40 days into his deployment. Zaphia concluded her email to Jason with the promise that she would be contributing the money she and Matthew had saved for their wedding because “Matthew would have wanted it that way.” It’s no wonder Jason says, "It's (average) people who do the caring.”

Jason’s ultimate goal is "to raise enough money to put children through school in Northern Uganda so they may grow up in peace."

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