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Chicago Documentary Filmmaker Killed in Ugandan Bus Crash

Documentary filmmaker David J. Steiner, far right, was killed when a bus he was in was struck by another vehicle in Uganda on Monday. (Betty Shabazz International Charter School)

A Chicago documentary filmmaker who chronicled the fight to keep a local charter school open was killed this week in a bus accident while working on a new project in Uganda.

David J. Steiner, 51, died Monday while traveling through a small Ugandan village with more than a dozen others after screening his film “Saving Barbara Sizemore” at a local film festival.

Sarah Giroux, a filmmaker traveling with Steiner and 15 others on the bus, said in a Facebook post their vehicle had been struck by a reckless driver before careening into a sewage drain.

“Everyone is in pain, mostly in our hearts, for the loss of our fearless leader, and man that made this all possible, David J. Steiner,” she said Tuesday. “Right now we need prayers and support to get back home as soon as possible.”

No one else was killed in the collision, but multiple injuries were reported.

As the passengers tried to gather themselves following the crash, Giroux said their bags were raided and their cash stolen. A GoFundMe campaign was started Monday to recoup the lost money and quickly surpassed its $5,000 goal.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the campaign had raised more than $9,700. Giroux said any funds not used by the passengers would be given to members of a South Sudanese family who remain hospitalized after traveling with the group.

Steiner was raised in Chicago and received his bachelor’s degree from UCLA in 1990. He later earned his master’s in arts from Columbia College Chicago in 2000. In addition to filmmaking, he also worked as an adjunct professor at Columbia and National Louis University in Skokie.

A self-described actor and director, Steiner had previously worked as a principal at two Jewish schools and was contacted by a friend who wanted to show him how Barbara Sizemore Academy, a small charter school in Englewood, was working to teach culture to its students.

“I went for Kwanzaa, and I loved the school,” he told Chicago Tonight during an August phone interview. “That was in 2014.”

Steiner decided to contribute dozens of portraits painted by his father to a Sizemore auction to help pay for professional development at the school and a student trip to Africa when he learned it was slated to be shut down by Chicago Public Schools.

The auction still went ahead as planned, but the proceeds were instead used to cover legal fees as school officials took their case to the Illinois Charter Commission in a successful fight to keep the school open.

Named after the first African-American woman to head a major school system, Barbara Sizemore Academy features an African-centered curriculum and a school culture based around an ancient African value system to prepare its students to be leaders.

Promotional poster for "Saving Barbara Sizemore"

“Saving Barbara Sizemore” follows a group of seventh- and eighth-graders at the school who documented their work to help keep their school open. Though he’s credited as the film’s director, Steiner was always quick to note this was a student project led by the students themselves.

“They decided to make a movie, decided to save their school,” he said in August, adding that students shot about 75 percent of the film. “I became their teacher.”

Sizemore Academy Principal Jocelyn Mills said Wednesday school officials had been in contact with the U.S. Embassy in Uganda and worked to get Terrance Dantzler and Haya Rasul – students involved in the documentary who were traveling with Steiner in Uganda – back to Chicago.

She could not provide an immediate update on their health. But Mills did speak to the impact Steiner and his work made on students at the school.

“I think he did such a fantastic job of teaching our students that there is power in media and that you can use it to make the world a better place,” she said. “I think his life and this story really speak highly of that.”

After airing at film festivals across the country – from Chicago and the Twin Cities to Louisville and Austin – “Saving Sizemore” was named an official selection of the Nile's Diaspora International Film Festival in Fort Portal, Uganda.

The film screened Dec. 18, but Steiner remained in the country to begin work on his next project – a documentary on South Sudanese refugee children who were deported from Israel to Kampala, Uganda, according to the film's website.

“I think the only thing I can emphasize is the gratefulness that our school and our network community have for his work,” Mills said. “I am most grateful that we have a piece of work and a body of work that will hopefully touch man generations to come. And I think that’s the greatest legacy he can leave behind.”

Follow Matt Masterson on Twitter: @ByMattMasterson

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