Chicago documentary filmmaker David J. Steiner was killed Monday in a bus crash in rural Uganda, a wreck that also injured his son and an Englewood teen who was traveling with them.
Steiner, 51, had spent more than a week in the East African nation, filming a documentary about a pair of Sudanese boys he and his son, Itamar, had befriended while the teens were in school together in Israel, Steiner’s fianceé, Diane Silverberg, said Monday evening.
Two students from Barbara A. Sizemore Academy, a charter school Steiner had featured in his award-winning documentary “Saving Barbara Sizemore,” had joined Steiner and Itamar in recent days and were aboard the bus. One of the teens, Terrence Dantzler, suffered a back injury, but most of the other passengers suffered only minor injuries.
The film crew is to travel to the U.S. Embassy in the Ugandan capitol of Kampala on Tuesday morning, though much of their equipment, cash and passports were looted from the wreckage, Silverberg said.
“Terrence hasn’t fractured his back, which was a concern, and everyone else seems to have just minor injuries,” Silverberg said Monday.
Steiner was seated at the front of the bus, loaded with camera gear and crew as they headed to a remote enclave of Hebrew-speaking Ugandans for a Hanukkah celebration, when the bus was struck by a reckless driver, Silverberg said.
Last year, a friend who worked at Barbara Sizemore Academy complained to Steiner that the school had been slated for closing, and enlisted Steiner to produce a documentary with Sizemore students, said Steiner’s father, Joseph Steiner. Dantzler and classmate Hayah Rasul were among the students who helped produce “Saving Barbara Sizemore,” and they became close friends with Steiner. Steiner paid for them to join him in Uganda. Steiner, who was close to finishing rabbinical training, even donned a Santa suit in the 90-degree African heat to spread the Christmas spirit.
“We wanted to bring joy to these children. It was 91 degrees outside while we wore these costumes,” Steiner posted on his Facebook page on Sunday, alongside pictures of Steiner wearing a Santa suit over his Cubs World Series T-shirt. “My t-shirt soaked completely, but this little girl, who lives hundreds of miles from her parents in South Sudan, had a great time and wouldn’t let us go. It was worth every bead of sweat and more. I only wish we could do more for them.”
As a 14-year-old growing up in north suburban Lincolnwood, Steiner decided he wanted to live in Israel, and he managed to enroll in an agricultural boarding school in Tel Aviv. Steiner would eventually become the head of the agricultural school, mastering tasks like artificially inseminating cows, and once even delivering a calf by cesarean section. He would go on to serve in the Israeli army and was haunted by his experiences during war with Lebanon.
Steiner traded his agricultural education for film school at the University of California-Los Angeles, and eventually he returned to Chicago, where he managed buildings owned by his father. Steiner formed a book club for homeless men he met while working on the buildings, said his father, Joseph Steiner.
“We’re a kind of out-there family, and social causes are a very big thing for all of us, David especially,” Joseph Steiner said.
David Steiner worked as a conflict mediator and helped manage his father’s buildings while working on film projects. In Uganda, he had been filming the story or two Sudanese refugees who had attended school with his son in Tel Aviv, only to return to the war-torn South Sudan and end up walking to neighboring Uganda.
Steiner’s Facebook page was filled with photos and messages about the trip and the horrors his friends and documentary subjects had endured, updates he made until hours before his death.
“He was having the time of his life,” Silverberg said. “Everything he did, he did with joy and gusto. He was just an incredibly giving person.”
Steiner is survived by his son Itamar, and two daughters, Sahar and Maya. Funeral services likely won’t take place until late next week, Silverberg said.