Four years ago, as students at Bournemouth University, Paul Taylor and Teddy Leifer knew they wanted to find a film project to work on together. And what a project it turned out to be: their first documentary, We Are Together (Thina Simunye) is backed by HBO and the Channel 4 British Documentary Film Foundation (aka Britdoc), has won awards at Idfa and Tribeca, and has a UK theatrical deal with EMI. US buyers are also in negotiations (Annie Roney of ro*co handles sales).
It all started when Taylor, then 19, spent a summer volunteering with Aids-related projects in Africa, including South Africa's Agape Orphanage, where children - most of whom had lost their parents to Aids - find hope through their choir.
"It was kind of an impulse to go to Africa," Taylor says now. "But it has impacted my life in a huge way. I just fell in love with the kids. They have that effect on everyone and I thought if we could get that on film, it would inspire so many more people."
Leifer, who produced We Are Together with Taylor, says: "In the second year of university, we started to go into pre-production." They shot 90% of the film in the summer after their second year at university, using a crew of classmates and a "very small budget that we mustered together", he remembers.
The film-makers stayed in touch with the children - including one main subject, 12-year-old Slindile - to shoot more footage over the next two years. The children were comfortable on camera because they already knew Taylor as a friend.
"Paul's relationship with the kids, and not coming in with an agenda, really comes through in the film. It's a genuine relationship," Leifer says.
Britdoc came on board with completion money and introduced Taylor and Leifer to editor Masahiro Hirakubo, who had previously cut films including Trainspotting.
He faced 170 hours of footage. "We were so fortunate to have a long edit of seven months," Taylor says. "That's a luxury and that's thanks to Britdoc."
HBO came on board about a year and a half ago, based on a very rough cut. "They've been very supportive," Leifer says of HBO, which has given the film a generous 15-month theatrical window (from its Tribeca showing in May) before airing. The film's upcoming UK showings will include an industry screening at Britdoc (July 25-27) followed by a likely official UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
"We just wanted people to see this story, and it's grown and grown and grown," Taylor says.
The film also has ties to Alicia Keys' and Leigh Blake's charity Keep A Child Alive, as well as Bono's ONE Campaign. Proceeds from the film will benefit the Agape orphans and children in a similar situation.
With their London-based company Rise Films off to a strong start, Taylor and Leifer now plan to produce other films, either directed by Taylor or other film-makers.
Taylor has a few ideas brewing for another documentary: "I have to find another story that I make a genuine connection with, like this."