SOCIETY

GOODWILL HUNTING

NICHOLAS KÖHLER September 11 2006
SOCIETY

GOODWILL HUNTING

NICHOLAS KÖHLER September 11 2006

GOODWILL HUNTING

SOCIETY

Matt Damon uses his celebrity for a good cause: helping Africa

NICHOLAS KÖHLER

There’s been much

eye-rolling of late in regards to celebrity antics in Africa. Madonna pours money into Malawi. Activist heartthrob George Clooney fears he caught malaria while warning of genocide in Darfur. Even Lindsay Lohan muses she’d like to take a break from the party circuit to visit Kenya. Sometimes, though, a Hollywood star scores a coup. When Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt stopped in Namibia to bear baby Shiloh last May, they transformed the paparazzi hordes into a campaign that captured international attention for a little-known and troubled country.

Matt Damon, who arrives in Toronto this month on the crest of completing Ocean’s Thirteen, may manage the same trick. On Sept. 10, as the Toronto International Film Festival turns Lake Ontario’s north shore into a riviera of stars, the city’s monied classes will dine with displaced Hollywood types at the second annual One X One Benefit Gala, which last year, with actress Kate Hudson’s

help, raised $1.3 million for child-focused charities. Damon’s role in the event this year, which also features development bigwigs like Jeffrey Sachs—the economist and UN special adviser helping Madonna on her Malawi project—is an elegant combination of his humanitarian ambitions and the glam of a TIFF-sanctioned fundraiser. In this, Damon may be taking lessons on how to deflect one’s celebrity glow onto worthier subjects from his Ocean’s co-star Pitt—rumoured to be slated, with Jolie, for a surprise showing at the dinner (much as U2’s Bono did last year).

“There’s nothing more annoying than watching some self-righteous celebrity tell you how you should live your life,” Damon recently told Maclean’s. “Unfortunately, more people will show up to hear me talk about Africa than they will to hear Jeffrey Sachs. I

think that’s crazy. But it’s the world we’re living in.” If Damon is no Sachs, he’s not entirely a dilettante either. In May, under the aegis of Bono’s One campaign, Damon spent a week in South Africa and Zambia, in one village following a 14-year-old girl to the well where she collects water each day. Asked if she’d remain in her village, the girl smiled and said she would go to Lusaka, the Zambian capital, to become a nurse. “I remember wanting to be an actor and saying, T’m going to go to New York,’ ’’Damon says. “I so related to that dream of hers.” Such encounters left him with the conviction that, while things in Africa are bad, they’re not insurmountable.

One way he’s trying to help is wThRunning the Sahara, a documentary he’s producing through LivePlanet, a production company he founded with his friend Ben Affleck. The film, which Damon will narrate and which begins shooting next month, will follow three ultra-marathoners—including Canadian Ray Zahab—as they attempt to run across the Sahara. Damon has attached the film to what he calls his “clean water initiative” by allowing people to pledge dollars against the trio’s progress over the three-month run. The money will go to sinking wells and otherwise securing clean water on the continent.

This summer, Joelle Berdugo Adler, president of jeans outfit Diesel Canada and the founder of One X One, approached Damon about hosting the gala. The actor agreed. “It’s a chance, quite candidly, to raise so much money that I have to make myself available,” says Damon. What drives him to pepper his busy shooting schedule with such work? Damon recalls a quote from Gandhi his mother placed on the refrigerator when he was a child. “No matter how insignificant what you do may seem,” it said, “it’s most important that you do it.” Adler hammered out the gala details with Damon just three weeks ago: “The first impression you get is exactly what you see— this really genuine, beautiful, caring human being with a big smile.” She plans to announce a One X One donation to Damon’s clean water initiative at the event. Running the Sahara, it’s hoped, will premiere at next year’s One X One benefit. The irony here is that Damon, the A-list actor, is leveraging his celebrity to bring aid to people to whom his name and face may mean little. Indeed, in Africa, he says, “they don’t know who I am.” M