Recent graduate's film project garners global health award

When it comes to completing a master’s thesis, few public health students turn to the medium of film. But Jonathan P. Smith ’11 M.P.H. did, and the creative approach has earned him a prize from an international organization dedicated to global health.

Smith’s documentary, “They Go To Die,” traces the plight of four former migrant gold miners in South Africa and Swaziland who contracted drug-resistant tuberculosis (TB) and HIV while working in the mines. With few prospects, the workers were eventually forced to return to their rural homes where, left with little access to health care, they eventually died.

Smith traveled to South Africa as part of his 2010 summer internship with the Yale School of Public Health and again in the spring of 2011, visiting the ailing men in their homes to capture the health and challenges faced by each of them.

The Tuberculosis Survival Project honored the 60-plus-minute film at an awards ceremony on Lille, France, in late October. The agency cited the film as a creative and moving work that raises awareness and tells a story few people are aware of. The awards committee included Nobel Peace Prize laureate Betty Williams.

“[Jonathan Smith] has made a moving and inspirational account of the experiences of his friends, working in the mines, to remind us of the people behind the numbers,” said Williams, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for her work in Northern Ireland. “He reminds us that we need to continue to look at the humanity of disease to find effective solutions.”

Smith had little film experience and worked two jobs in order to fund his trip to South Africa. He spent much of his time living with the four former miners and their families. He said he hopes the film, and its website, will mobilize people to improve conditions for the many thousands of people who continue to work in South Africa’s mines. 

“My goal is to stop the cycle on new infections and deaths from a disease that is both preventable and curable,” says Smith, who is now a lecturer at the School of Public Health “These men [in the film] were my friends. I made this film to tell their story to the world.”

An early version of “They Go to Die” was screened to a packed audience of staff, students and faculty in Winslow Auditorium shortly before the 2011 Commencement.

“His project opened a new avenue for communicating what has been known for years — the devastation of TB for miners and their families in South Africa. The film is an outstanding piece of public health. It is creative, authentic, and evidence-based. I could not be more proud of what Jonathan has accomplished here,” says Elizabeth Bradley, professor at the School of Public Health who served as Smith’s academic adviser.