Utpal Borpujari

November 15, 2008

The deadly truth of designer viruses

An NRI computer scientist makes a film, to be world premiered at the 39th IFFI, to “reveal the truth” about bio-terrorism, writes Utpal Borpujari

 The outbreak of a strange, unidentified strain of fever a few years ago in North Bengal had left everyone perplexed. Reports of such unexplained diseases often get reported in the media in small print, most of such outbreaks happening in poor nations or poorer, inaccessible parts of the developing world. Could all this be part of experimentations on deadly viruses by advanced militaries of the world? A new American film made by an Indian expatriate, to have its world premiere at the 39th International Film Festival of India in Goa, scrutinizes this sensitive issue in the form of a thriller, with its director stating that it’s a story developed out of facts.

And Vera Chawla, the woman behind Death Without Consent, should know what she is talking about, having worked for years in sensitive defence contracts inside Pentagon as an employee of organisations like NASA, General Electric and Boeing. “It is a danger that is least understood and probably could not be handled if and when it happens,” is how she bluntly puts it as she talks about prospects of bio-terrorism and the threat of “designer viruses” developed by defence scientists falling into wrong hands in these sensitive times – something that forms the core of her independently-produced film.

“The threat of bio-terrorism is very real!  You only have to see how much goes on behind the scenes to ward off an attack and you’ll get a sense of the proportion of a potential disaster.  But, even that is not enough. A serious bio-terrorism attack could annihilate towns and cities, not just two World Trade Centers,” says Mumbai-born Chawla, an MS in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from University of Virginia.

 

“The more important problem. which is what my film also addresses, is the manner in which these weapons of mass destruction are produced.  When new highly-contagious bacterial strains are created with the intent to kill the masses – the ‘designer viruses’ –  they need to be tested to prove their virility.  Obviously testing on mice, monkeys or cattle does not serve the purpose, since the objective is not to kill animals, but humans!  They must be tested on humans.  Think about how the labs accomplish that!  And we know that many strains have already been perfected and are waiting to be deployed, should the need arise,” she says ominously.

 

Chawla’s film goes into the issue head on, through the story of Chris Carrington, a brilliant student who lost his father and brother to a hereditary kidney disease, knowing that he will die from it also. Having lost faith in God and his desire to live, Chris is unexpectedly contacted by a retired KGB officer, who tells him that his family’s disease was neither hereditary nor ordinary – he was a victim of a human experiment. Reluctantly, Chris begins an investigation into the tangled political web of corruption, bio-terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. 

 

Chalwa says her film is based on fact. “The story is based on a reality.  The elements of thrill, the music, the subplots, are fictional to make the story more captivating.  I researched what was available in the public domain, including published papers, web research, libraries, newspaper articles.  I turned to civilian and defence governmental agencies to get information in the public domain,” she says.

 

The film, she says, seeks to “inform” people about how civil rights are being violated in the testing of bio-terrorist weapons, even by some of the most developed nations. The film was written as a drama to convey its main intent, and was shot as a thriller to capture the younger adults in the population, especially as the protagonists are all college kids.  “My desire was to entertain while subliminally delivering the message,” says the director, whose father Dr Nari Vaswani was a professor at the University of Roorkee (now IIT-Roorkee). Even in the context of the Subcontinent, the film’s subject is relevant, Chawla says, though obliquely. Ask her if some of the mysterious outbreaks of diseases in different parts of the Subcontinent could be cases of such experiments, she says, “While no government will take responsibility and no individual is at liberty to talk about it, there are biochemical experiments going on everywhere, more likely in certain targeted countries which make for easier experimentation because the population is poor, uneducated and helpless.  A number of unexplainable epidemics, where the strain had no rational evolution, were caused by the testing of new viral strains that were so contagious that they could not be contained.  One of the characteristics of germ warfare is to make sure the bug is highly contagious.  Warfare is effective only if you kill in the masses, and to do so, the virus needs to spread very easily.”

 

Her film focuses on the biological weaponry developed by the erstwhile USSR, but according to her, everything about the subject is relevant now. “Bio-terrorism is a real threat today.  The Cold War is significant because Russia had one of the largest arsenal of biochemical viruses and during Perestroika, they let go most of their scientists, who had the knowledge to develop these.  These scientists found employment in countries that sought their knowledge and soon other countries had perfected many strains.  The end of the Cold War, and Russia’s inability to handle its breakaway nations and crumbling resources, and secure its own supplies, caused the knowledge to become more available and the threat immensely greater,” she claims. “I made this movie with a specific purpose:  to reveal the truth about the impact of bio-terrorist weapons production and testing on indigenous and unsuspecting populations around the world.” Death, in today’s world, it seems, could truly be without consent of even the gods.

 

(Published in Sakaal Times, www.sakaaltimes.com / http://epaper.sakaaltimes.com, 15-11-2008)

 

And here’s the complete Vera Chawla Interview which was the basis for this article:

 

 

How easy or difficult was it for you to start your film career with a non-India/Indian/NRI centric story, which NRI filmmakers tend to fall upon?

 

I made this movie with a specific purpose:  to reveal the truth about the impact of bioterrorist weapons production and testing on indigenous and unsuspecting populations around the world.  That story does not lend itself to an Indian/NRI theme.  While this could have been a documentary, because it is based on the truth, I turned it into fiction because more people would rather watch a movie than a documentary.  I hoped that under the guise of entertainment, they would pick up information they would not otherwise have guessed.  Because the movie has a message, I wanted it to have a global audience, and that again means not limiting it to the theme of any specific country.

 

 

The subject is of increasing importance to the present-day world. How much you had to fall back upon your own work experience to develop the idea?

 

Experience is what perpetrated the story.  I have worked with the Pentagon and the U.S. Department of Defense for over 15 years with high level clearances.  While I can never reveal Classified information, I wrote a fictional story that would expose the reality while incorporating only information that can be publicly obtained if one tried to look for it.

 

 

As the first-time director of a small, non-studio project that deals with an important, subject, what kind of hurdles (financial or otherwise) you faced while executing it? Did you approach any hollywood studio for funding?

 

Independent filmmakers face unbelievable hurdles.  From having someone believe in their ideas (which are usually more brilliant than the movies we see on the screen!), to obtaining finances, to having the ability to cast celebrities, to obtaining distribution, and in overall production resources.  I never turned to anyone for financing, because as a first time filmmaker, I felt it would be a hard sell to convince someone to trust me enough to invest in me.  Instead I dedicated myself to learning the craft, prior to and during the making of the movie:  shooting with 35mm, lighting, transferring films to digitals, cutting the negative, sound design and production, music composition and scoring, Dolby digital mastering, film color corrections, the art of processing 35mm, creating InterPositives, Internegatives, prints, marketing materials, publicity, festivals, distribution, and on and on.  I just jumped in cold and managed it all!  I feel I know more about filmmaking than I need to — its been an incredible experience.

 

 

How real is the threat of bioterrorism in the current context? Are countries like US or India ready to face the challenges of bioterrorism?

 

The threat of bioterrorism is very real!  You only have to see how much goes on behind the scenes to ward off an attack and you’ll get a sense of the proportion of a potential disaster.  But, even that is not enough.  A serious bioterrorism attack could annihilate towns and cities, not just 2 World Trade Centers.  It is a danger that is least understood and probably could not be handled if and when it happens.

 

The more important problem (which is what my film also addresses) is the manner in which these weapons of mass destruction are produced.  When new highly contagious bacterial strains are created with the intent to kill the masses (“designer viruses”), they need to be tested to prove their virility.  Obviously testing on mice, monkeys or cattle does not serve the purpose, since the objective is not to kill animals, but humans!  They must be tested on humans.  Think about how the labs accomplish that!  And we know that many strains have already been perfected and are waiting to be deployed, should the need arise.

 

 

You have worked for long with US government agencies. Obviously, you know much more than you can tell. How and where did you draw the line while making the movie? How much is fact and how much is fiction in your film? Did you take help from govt agencies while making the film?

 

The film is based on fact.  Even the story is based on a reality.  The elements of thrill, the music, the subplots, are fictional to make the story more captivating.  I researched what was available in the public domain, including published papers, web research, libraries, newspaper articles.  Yes, I turned to civilian and defense governmental agencies to get information in the public domain.

 

 

Have you treated the film as only a thriller or sought to drive home the message that it is time to beware of the prospect of bioterrorism?

 

I tried to “inform” people of how civil rights are being violated in the testing of bioterrorist weapons, even by some of the most developed nations.  While the film was written as a drama to convey its main intent, it was shot, cut, and scored as a thriller, to capture the younger adults in the population, specially since the protagonists of the film are all college kids.  I have found that the middle-aged audience enjoys the story just as much, because of its ‘love story’ and ‘religion’ subplots.  My desire was to “entertain” while subliminally delivering the message.

 

 

In the context of the Subcontinent, how relevant is the subject? Can some of the mysterious outbreaks of diseases in different parts of the Subcontinent be cases of experimentations of this type?

 

While no government will take responsibility and no individual is at liberty to talk about it, there are biochemical experiments going on everywhere, more likely in certain targeted countries which make for easier experimentation because the population is poor, uneducated and helpless.  A number of unexplainable epidemics, where the strain had no rational evolution, were caused by the testing of new viral strains that were so contagious that they could not be contained.  One of the characteristics of germ warfare is to make sure the bug is highly contagious.  Warfare is effective only if you kill in the masses, and to do so, the virus needs to spread very easily.

 

Don’t you think the Russian angle in your film is slightly dated as now the Cold War era is over and terrorism has taken a completely new meaning?

 

There is nothing dated about bioterrorism.  It is a real threat today.  The Cold War is significant because Russia had one of the largest arsenal of biochemical viruses and during perestroika, they let go most of their scientists, who had the knowledge to develop these.  These scientists found employment in countries that sought their knowledge and soon other countries had perfected many strains.  The end of the Cold War, and Russia’s inability to handle its breakaway nations and crumbling resources, and secure its own supplies, caused the knowledge to become more available and the threat immensely greater.

 

 

When is the film getting released? And when in India?

 

The distribution is not yet complete.  We would like to get distribution in India.

 

 

The next project from you? Do you any plans to make a film in India or would you prefer to make your films in the US only?

 

I would love to make a film in India.  There are so many fascinating themes that can be tackled here. 

 

 

You were a child artiste in India – can you throw some light on that aspect and also on your family and career backgrounds?

 

My family were educators.  My father was Dr. Nari Vaswani, a prominent Professor and author at the University of Roorkee and my mother, Sheila Vaswani, taught at English schools, both in Roorkee and in Dehradun.  I was educated at Waverley in Mussoorie, then Welham Girls School in Dehradun, and finally at the University of Virginia in the U.S. where I received my B.S. in Applied Mathematics, and my M.S. in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, a novelty for its time.  I have acted in plays from the age of 6 to 42, but when I was 25, I met the famous Raj Kapoor, who’s passion for films, rubbed off on me.  Having no time for acting, directing or films, in the midst of bringing up a family and my career, I had to table that to the future.  I worked with the U.S. federal government, both at NASA and as a subcontractor to the defense department from G.E. and Boeing, ultimately becoming the Executive Vice President of another $100 million federal government contractor.  I have served on numerous Boards, including hospitals, banks, dotcom companies and charitable organizations.  I have been on the Grand Jury, affiliated with technical associations and have a charitable fund in the name of my parents, which is dedicated to education. 

 

 

Working in Pentagon and other agencies to being a filmmaker – how did this changeover happen?

 

We should all have our passions, and acting was mine.  Since my youthful looks were long gone in doing my duty to my parents and my family, by the time I had the time to pursue my passion, it could only be channeled towards ‘directing’.  That gave me the closeness with actors that I always had, allowed me to express my creativity and exposed the new world of film versus theater, which I find amazingly effective. 

 

 

Do you keep track of Indian cinema? Which are the films that you have liked and why, in recent times?

 

 I try to watch Indian movies whenever I get the chance.  I like a number of them, mostly those with less dances and songs, and which carry an important theme or relay deeper meanings to life.

 

 

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