Killer movie: Filmmaker turns disease into documentary

An insect bite transmits a parasite into the blood that eats the internal organs. Symptoms may not show up until 20 years later– and there's no cure. "It kills you very slowly," says Charlottesville filmmaker Ricardo Preve.

Preve didn't start out to make a documentary about Chagas, known in Latin America as the "AIDS of the poor." At first, the disease was merely a plot-line in a screenplay he was collaborating on called Chagas: An Argentine Love Story.

In north Argentina last March researching locations for the feature-length film, Preve discovered reality can be more compelling than fiction. "Doctors and social workers are fighting the disease with no funds," he says.

And then he met a childhood friend he hadn't seen in 30 years who has Chagas. Not only that, the friend's grandson probably has Chagas, laments Preve. "It was a powerful closing of a circle."

Preve currently is filming a Chagas documentary, A Hidden Affliction, in France, and he expects to finish in South America in May. "I'm hoping the documentary will be seen by a lot of people and raise money to make the fiction film," he says. Then he wants to piggyback the documentary onto a DVD of the feature film.

Like The Station Agent's Barry Sisson, another local screen luminary, Preve, 46, is a relative newcomer to filmmaking.

Until 2001, he was CEO for a large multinational corporation. He happened to be hanging with Argentine director Fernando Spiner, who was working on a sci-fi film called Goodbye Dear Moon.

"He asked what I was doing, and I said nothing, I just lost my job," recalls Preve. "Things happen in your life," muses Preve. "You meet a friend, and I discovered this was something I really like."

Since serving as associate producer on that Spiner film, Preve has begun several projects, including raising money for Joseph Nossiter's documentary Mondovino, about how commercialism has corrupted winemaking.

"He's got terrific taste in projects he's picked up," says Virginia Film Festival director Richard Herskowitz. "I'm really impressed with his eye for talent."

Preve has joined the Festival's board of directors and helped organize last year's Cine Argentina, "a nice coincidence because Argentine cinema is really flourishing," says Herskowitz.

Preve calls A Hidden Affliction, which he wrote, directed, and produced, "my own baby." He believes globalization makes it only a matter of time before Chagas shows up here.

There's no blood screen to catch the disease, so it can be contracted from blood transfusions or organ transplants. "At the moment, they ask only if you've lived in a hut in South America," he says.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates 16 to 18 million people are infected with Chagas and that it kills 50,000 a year.

"This parasite is so smart– it only infects poor people far away," says Preve. "It flies right below the political radar screen."

But perhaps not for much longer.