By Jean Bonchak

In the film "The Lost Sparrows of Roodepoort," David Ponce runs beside a little boy afflicted with AIDS.

"Can you see me?" the boy asks. "Yes, I can see you," Ponce responds.

This exchange of words symbolizes in simple yet profound fashion the very reason that Ponce, a young man studying filmmaking at Chapman University in California, was compelled to capture the story of Sparrow Village, an AIDS orphanage in Roodepoort, South Africa, near Johannesburg.

"Nothing is as important to me as producing a work that is true to Sparrow and showing those who have not visited, just what the human spirit is capable of when faced with something immensely dark and frightening," Ponce said upon returning from his trip to South Africa.

However, the 2004 Chagrin Falls High School graduate died of leukemia in 2006 at age 20, leaving his mother and friends to finish the project.

The result is a 30-minute documentary with its premiere screening set for 7 p.m. Saturday at Chagrin Falls Performing Arts Center, 400 E. Washington St. An after-party celebration will take place at Trifles Cafe, 516 E. Washington St., Chagrin Falls.

The Rev. Corine McClintock, founder and director of Sparrow Village, will travel from South Africa to take part in the events. She also will address an assembly at 10 a.m. Sunday at the Federated Church Family Life Center, 16349 Chillicothe Road, Chagrin Falls. Ponce was a member of the church.

In search of lost sparrows

To capture footage needed for the film, Ponce's mother, Mary Ann Ponce, and classmate Brock Carter traveled to South Africa one year after the filmmaker's death.

"I was dreading it," Mary Ann Ponce said, "but actually when I got there it was the most beautiful thing. We all felt David with us."

She maintained that the orphanage provides vastly improved living conditions for the children as well as medical care, including anti-retroviral drugs that can significantly slow progression of the disease.

"We saw where they came from," she said.

"It's an unbelievably destitute existence. No health care, no sewers … they would have faced certain death.

"Each child has a different story. Most of them were found or taken in when one or both of their parents succumbed to AIDS. Some were found with mothers who had been dead for days. Babies are picked out of the trash."

Sparrow Village houses about 250 children, ranging from babies to teens.

"More than anything it's just unconditional love. It's love everywhere they turn," she said.

Fevered dreams

After almost two years of work on the film, Carter says he is pleased with the outcome.

"The film allows people to get a glimmer of hope in the midst of a truly overwhelming global problem," he said. "While, as Corine says in the film 'You can build 10,000 of these places and you're still not going to win …,' there is an undeniable sense that for the people lucky enough to find a home at Sparrow, they see themselves with not only a future, but one that will strive to make better a nation torn by this horrible virus."

When asked what Ponce would have thought about the finished project, his mother said, "David would be very happy with it. He wanted it to be about the children and the joy and the courage that it showed."

While at Chapman, Ponce began Fevered Dreams Productions to assist with his filmmaking future. Since his death, the company has transitioned to a potential vehicle for young cinematographers to highlight stories of the human spirit.

"Lost Sparrows of Roodepoort" has been submitted as an entry to several film festivals worldwide and is being considered for public broadcast on a local television station.

Cost to attend the screening in Chagrin Falls is $15, $35 for after-party. For more information, call Mary Ann Ponce at (440) 247-0137.

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