Filmmakers from the Scripps College of Communication have combined visual diaries of young cancer patients and their families to create an innovative film about the day-to-day realities of living with cancer.
Lynn Harter and Casey Hayward premiered their documentary "The Art of the Possible" on Dec. 3 at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center* in Houston. The film follows the lives of five young people who have been diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that typically affects children and teens going through a growth spurt.
Harter, the Steven and Barbara Schoonover Professor of Health Communication, and Hayward, assistant professor of media arts and studies, have spent almost two years producing this project.
Hayward, who also directed, said that the project began "at a gathering at Lynn's house. She mentioned some interviews she was doing with Dr. Peter Anderson at M.D. Anderson. I said he sounded like a good subject for a documentary -- since the first thing I always look for is characters -- and we just went with the idea from there."
Anderson, a pediatric oncologist who specializes in osteosarcoma, and Harter were well acquainted. She had shadowed the physician because of his unique style of working with patients.
Harter explained that he fully assess his patients needs, addressing not just the medical needs of one person, but the emotional needs of the entire family.
"We really felt his work lent itself to multisensory story telling in film," she said. "Not just words and text, but characters and action sequences that unfold visually. It was a medium that could include public screenings and integration in medical school curriculums."
When the producers approached Anderson he was enthused about the project and helped recruit families for the film. Two patients were from Ohio -- Logan Boyd from Medina and Sarah Richardson from Albany -- and three others were from around the country. All were being treated at M.D. Anderson by Anderson and by their own local oncologists.
Anderson's family-style care structure worked well with a style of documentary filmmaking that Harter referred to as "video voice or participatory documentary." A number of charities helped finance the production, including the purchase of high definition video cameras that were distributed to families in the film.
"They documented with a camera what it is like to move through the world while being treated for cancer." Harter said. "It gave the young people and their families the opportunity to narrate what they thought was important for others to know about cancer."
The innovative shooting style had many benefits, such as allowing the participants to help take control over the direction of the storytelling. Harter said, "It was not just us as filmmakers who were deciding what was important and worth filming."
The video diaries came with some drawbacks as well. Hayward and Harter had dozens of hours of the most intimate moments of the families' lives to fit into the 56-minute film.
"The footage was composed of really important memories," Harter said. "But, you can only include a small part of that. However, this isn't just a filmmaker's footage that is left on the cutting room floor. It's a person's family and defining moments. We are working with families to re-purpose the unused footage in ways that are beneficial to them."
Hayward agreed, "I think we approached the footage as a glimpse into the narrative sense-making/memory creation process that families go through when dealing with dramatic life circumstances. It takes the film away from being a clinical look at health care and humanizes the whole endeavor."
Two of the documentary's subjects, Boyd and Colleen Moore, died from their cancer. Filming these stories, Harter said, was bittersweet. "We got to know the children and their families. And when they invite you into those vulnerable moments, you develop a kinship and those are lifelong bonds. By far, those are most rewarding aspects of it, but those are also the most challenging."
Harter and Hayward think there are several audiences for "The Art of the Possible." "I would love to see this being shown in medical schools, support groups and to the general community," Harter said.
They hope that viewing the film will show the importance of humanizing medicine to health care students and professionals and will begin to demystify cancer treatments for patients and their families.
"Cancer is a disease that is feared by many, but whose treatment is understood by few," Harter said. "We invite the audience to get to know the person, not just the disease. Logan was not just coping with osteosarcoma; he was also an accomplished percussionist in the Medina High School band, a son, nephew and friend."
Harter said that cancer is a chronic disease in our society and sees the film as a useful tool in educating families about living with long-term illnesses.
"I hope that in a hospital and health context, people will see that many of the lessons learned are applicable to many chronic health conditions and will resonate with families living with other conditions like diabetes."
Hayward concurred, "I don't think films can answer questions, but they can start conversations. We hope that ours causes people to examine the broader aspects of living with long-term illness."
"The Art of the Possible" will make its Ohio debut on Dec. 9 at Medina High School, the alma mater of Boyd. There are no plans yet for showings in Athens, but the producers are excited by the prospect of further viewings.
Hayward said, "This film has always been about getting it out into the hands of other people to start discussions."
The filmmakers would like to acknowledge and thank their sponsors: The American Cancer Society,* Golfers Against Cancer* and the Laura Hinz Copeland Ewing Sarcoma Foundation.*