Chestnut Hill's Melissa Fitzgerald films documentary of Ugandan teen refugees

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WHILE Melissa Fitzgerald was in northern Uganda filming her documentary "Staging Hope," a teenager came up to her and asked for one thing: "Don't let us die in these camps," the youth said. "Don't forget about us."

His appeal is repeated several times throughout "Staging Hope." Through the documentary, Fitzgerald - who grew up in Chestnut Hill and graduated from Springside School and the University of Pennsylvania - hopes to inform the U.S. about the plight of northern Uganda and keep the conversation about humanitarian efforts alive. "Staging Hope" premieres in Philadelphia tomorrow at two sold-out screenings, with a repeat screening on Wednesday, as part of the Philadelphia Film Festival.

Fitzgerald is an actress best known for her work on TV's "West Wing" as Carol Fitzpatrick, assistant to C.J. Craig (played by Allison Janney). The political drama was a natural fit for the daughter of a judge - Common Pleas Judge James Fitzgerald III - and the executive director of the Pennsylvania Society - Carol McCullough Fitzgerald.

But acting isn't her only passion. Besides acting, in 1995 Fitzpatrick co-founded Voices in Harmony, a nonprofit theater program in Los Angeles that works with at-risk teens to turn their stories into plays. "Staging Hope," filmed in 2006, follows Fitzgerald and her colleagues as she brings a similar program to the displaced-persons camps in war-torn northern Uganda.

"We do it in Los Angeles," Fitzgerald said, "so why not in Kitgum?"

These African teenagers - barely out of childhood - have experienced atrocities beyond comprehension due to a civil war that had been raging since before most of them were born. Many had been abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army and forcibly conscripted or used as sex slaves. Their only way out was death or escape. Other children watched as their relatives were killed. Many were forced from their homes and into the crowded, disease-ridden refugee camps.

Despite the distance between the two places, Fitzgerald encountered many similarities between the L.A. teens and those in Uganda. "Teenagers are teenagers, people are people," Fitzgerald said. "I have to relearn this lesson that no matter what it looks like on the outside - if there are differences in age, euthenics, geography, socioeconomic background - no matter what the external differences, people are people. I love relearning that lesson whether it's in L.A. or Uganda."

But there were also stark differences. Fitzgerald, who refers to herself as a loud American, had to work with the Ugandan teens to raise their voices. Her group was also paired with a child-protection officer who acted as an adviser so Voices in Harmony's work didn't accidentally dredge up traumatic feelings in the teens. This stress could be triggered by the simplest of questions: Once, Fitzgerald asked a teen whom he lived with and he started to cry because his cousins had been abducted while they were sleeping together in the same hut and he never saw them again.

Fitzgerald was initially drawn to Africa after her divorce from actor Noah Emmerich. As an avid "Oprah" viewer, she would write down a gratitude list every night, making sure not to repeat entries. "Things came up like having running water and electricity," Fitzgerald said. "I just started thinking there are a lot of people who don't have access to electricity or even a piece of paper and pencil to write a gratitude list."

Fitzgerald received training for her visit through the International Medical Corps and the International Rescue Committee. But despite the training and research she did before her trip, Fitzgerald wasn't emotionally prepared for what she saw.

"I had no idea the depth of and breadth of the problem. I had heard about it but I didn't know in a profound way," Fitzgerald said. "I couldn't believe I wasn't hearing about it all the time, that it wasn't on the front page of the paper. But this is an issue we can do something about. We don't need billions of dollars or thousands of troops but I think we're not doing anything because we don't know about it."

That's why Fitzgerald and Cherry Hill-born producer Katy Fox decided to film their journey to Uganda. People should know what's going on, they thought. If they knew, they would want to help.

Since Fitzgerald shot "Staging Hope," she's worked to get U.S. legislation passed that would ease the suffering in Uganda, including the Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009 that President Obama signed last year. She praised both Sen. Bob Casey and former Sen. Arlen Specter for their support.

But her mission always returns to the Ugandan teenager's simple request: Don't forget. "That's what I've been trying to do for the past five years," Fitzgerald said.

 


"Staging Hope," Ritz East, 125 S. 2nd St., 7:35 p.m. Wednesday, $12, 215-925-7900, filmdelphia.org.