It wasn't like Firdaus Kharas was looking for something to do. The Ottawa film and television producer had plenty of projects on the go. But in 2002, when South African screenwriter Brent Quinn pitched Kharas on an animated public-service announcement that would feature talking condoms and an AIDS-prevention message, Kharas signed on instantly.
Kharas had been visiting South Africa for several years, attending Sithengi, the industry film and video festival here, and helping to develop the nascent animation business. On each visit, he was more vividly aware of the impact of AIDS.
"All you have to do is see one of 600,000 orphans in South Africa or a 14-year-old in the townships heading a family of four younger siblings," he said. "You can't go to Africa any more and not be affected by the pandemic. I'm just trying to make a small contribution to stopping AIDS."
He and Quinn got the first shorts made, written with input from volunteers in South Africa, animated by volunteers in India (where Kharas has also worked with new animators) and put through post-production by volunteers in Canada. They began to air in English in Canada, and were translated into four of the 11 commonly spoken South African languages.
But Kharas had his eye on wider distribution, and he recruited foreign young people studying in Ottawa to help him translate the short scripts, both linguistically and idiomatically, into everything from Gujarati and Ndebele to Mandarin and Lithuanian.
Now the Three Amigos message is being distributed free, in the form of 20 short public-service announcements, in 41 different languages.
Between them, those languages cover 80 per cent of the global population. (Each language took about 13 hours of work, to produce 4.5 minutes of running time.) The colourful, crisply animated shorts feature the antics of three animated condoms -- Shaft, Stretch and Dick -- and a mildly salty script. They always conclude with a "wear a condom" message. Kharas and Quinn believe that the innocent quality of the animation makes people more willing to listen to a blunt message about sexual behaviour.
"India, Russia, China -- I'm concerned about the threshold countries where we need to have prevention," Kharas said. "Some of these countries are waiting until it's going to be too late."
A small grant from Omni Television helped fund the translation effort, and the Canadian International Development Agency pledged $100,000 to assist with the distribution of tapes. These are available free to community groups and AIDS prevention programs from http://www.threeamigos.org. Currently the ads are running on university television channels, in train stations and at soccer stadiums in South Africa, where some 700 people die of AIDS every week.
"This is an easily preventable disease, you just have to change human behaviour," Kharas said by telephone from the United Nations in New York last week, where he was publicly launching the 41 versions of Three Amigos.
When the ads debuted in South Africa in 2003, the Three Amigos team had the help of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who called them "a powerful communicating tool" and urged broadcasters to run them. "PSAs are only useful if they are seen," Tutu said then. "I urge broadcasters to use these wonderfully human-life characters to put across the serious message that can save lives and prevent the spread of the HI virus."