Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2007

Movie making becomes a mission Potomac director releases first film, a bio-terrorism thriller

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Vera Chawla, of Potomac, wrote, directed and produced ‘‘Death Without Consent,” a movie thriller about bio-terrorism she shot in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Having worked on bio-terrorism issues for many years, Chawla wanted to heighten awareness of the threat via a feature film.
Vera Chawla is one accomplished woman: mathematician, computer engineer, company director and trustee of finance and hospital boards.

Now the 25-year Potomac resident is adding some new titles: writer, director and producer of a feature film about bio-terrorism shot entirely in the Washington, D.C., area.

Making the movie thriller ‘‘Death Without Consent” was more an imperative than a career choice for Chawla. After working in or around the field of bio-terrorism since the 1970s, she felt she had something important to say about the stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons in countries from Russia to the United States.

‘‘I wanted to wrap up my message about the threat of bio-terrorism in a dramatic story and not a documentary, so people would want to see it,” she said. ‘‘This was a burning thing, something I just had to do. Over the years I took oaths...not to talk about my work. I can’t say what I know, so this is how I can bring the subject out — in a movie.”

The mystery thriller shot over the summer of 2005 follows American college kid Chris Carrington (played by Chad Doreck) as he races against time to uncover the truth behind the viral disease that threatens his life and that of his siblings. Along the way, he discovers his father died from a viral weapon developed by a Russian scientist, falls for the daughter of his father’s killer, and bumps up against the FBI and other agencies less than thrilled with his quest for the truth.

Chawla walked away from her job as vice president of Information Systems and Networks Corporation in Bethesda in 2001 to realize her dream of making the film. She wrote the screenplay, then bankrolled the $700,000 film herself.

‘‘I had friends that, once they found out about the movie, asked to help finance it but I always said, ‘No.’ I didn’t want to jeopardize anyone else’s finances,” she said. ‘‘If the film does well and I get my investment back, then I’d love to do another on a different cause.”

Not that Chawla is a novice when it comes to directing a drama. As a little girl growing up in India, she loved to act in plays but her parents made it clear that the stage was simply not a career option.

‘‘If I’d had my druthers, I’d have been an actress but my parents were very conservative,” she said.

Instead, Chawla earned a degree in applied mathematics at the University of Virginia in 1971, then stayed on to earn a masters degree in computer science and electrical engineering in 1974. During a 25-year career in the high-tech industry, she spent much of her time working at the Pentagon as a contractor and at companies like Boeing Aerospace and General Electric.

She also raised two daughters, now ages 24 and 26, with her husband, but managed to keep alive her interest in the dramatic arts.

‘‘I kept my creative side going by directing plays. It was a passion, not a hobby,” she said. ‘‘When the girls went off to college, I decided it was time to devote myself to film.”

She embarked on a series of classes and seminars on screenwriting and filmmaking but knew exactly the story she intended to tell.

‘‘To me there are two huge messages. One, major governments the world over are building biochemical weapons. They test on mice and sheep and cattle...but then you have to find humans to test it on,” she said.

Her second message is that the United States is woefully unprepared for a bio-terrorist attack.

‘‘The movie is like a wake-up call,” she said. ‘‘Be prepared, because we don’t realize how devastating such an attack would be.”

Chawla decided to use local sites and a local crew for the film.

‘‘People in Hollywood scoffed but I found a wonderful crew right here,” she said. ‘‘I had a crew of 42, all locals, and we worked 18-hour days.”

Aside from some actors cast in Hollywood, the film reflects Chawla’s ties to the local area with scenes at Georgetown Preparatory School in Bethesda and at Seneca Creek and Sandy Point state parks.

Post-production work was completed in Los Angeles and New York City.

In August the film was screened at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring by Diamond Films, an independent film company owned by Chawla. She is now negotiating a release of the film with distributors, but has opted out of showing it at film festivals. She prefers to have it screened at universities and other smaller venues, she said.

‘‘I want this film to succeed through word-of-mouth, through the buzz it creates,” she said. ‘‘It’s all about getting the story out.”

To see the trailer and learn more about the movie thriller ‘‘Death Without Consent,” go to www.DeathWithoutConsent.com. Diamond Films, the independent producer of the film, can be contacted at 301-469-6933.