HOLY COW! I just learned that With Cancer, the short doc Lorelei and I made in China last summer, has advanced as a semifinalist in the 44th Student Academy Awards! (Yes.. Like the Oscars!) I am shocked, humbled, and so incredibly grateful for my partner Lorelei who made this film possible. Only 85 films out of 1,586 submitted were chosen as semifinalists placing us roughly in the top %5 of all films submitted.
With this news, I realize that not many have heard about my time in China and I'd like to share an excerpt from my essay that I wrote for my USC Global Scholar Application:
"With Cancer" is a product of the The USC Global Exchange Fellowship to Beijing, China in collaboration with the Communications University of China. Seven other (mostly) graduate film students and I were matched with a Chinese film student and tasked with making a documentary film together. The program was part documentary class and part cultural exchange. Unlike The Pamoja Project in Tanzania, I wasn't just making a film about a culture that was foreign to me, but was totally immersed in Bejing and was actively collaborating with a native filmmaker.
On our first day of class in Beijing, we shuffled into the small cramped classroom with no air conditioning, and picked partners. The American students were sweating bullets as we stumbled through pitching our project ideas while our Chinese counterparts coolly maintained their composure. Lorey, a Chinese student who had a background in Chinese news and TV, pitched a project about a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) doctor who was treating and healing cancer patients that western medicine could no longer help. I was impressed by her grace, compassion, and quiet strength. There was something in Lorey that connected with me and I could tell she had much to teach me. My views on eastern medicine vs. western medicine are conflicting and so with a desire to uncover a new perspective on this topic, I was hooked.
Lorey and I spent the months of May and June with Doctor Zhang Da-ning, a warm, passionate doctor who wouldn’t hesitate to smack your hand if you opted for cold water instead of warm water — cold water is taboo in China and thought to be harmful to women’s reproductive health. Everyday she shared with us her thoughts and hopes for her patients and the future of TCM. Dr. Da-ning was one of the few TCM doctors who believed that TCM and Western medicine, though very different in approach, could work in tandem to improve her patient’s lives. I spent hours with Lorey before shooting talking about the story and our styles etc. But on our first day, Dr. Da-ning moved lightning fast around the hospital and I didn’t know what anyone was saying so all I could really do was smile, nod, and record sound. I realized I was going to need to let go of a lot of control, which was going to be hard for me. I had never co-directed a film before. While many issues we had during production were standard to any filmmaker in the world, (erratic scheduling, story issues, running out of batteries, etc.) some were eye-opening unique to this experience. I often wanted to ask much more personal questions which Lorey gently said weren’t culturally appropriate. I took a raw approach to connecting with subjects, where Lorey let people come to her. Sometimes she translated for me but when she knew it would be a distraction to the subject, she didn’t. I learned to trust her completely and I developed a new way of listening to body language, tone, intonation, energy etc. Through the process I learned about cancer, health, media regulations, storytelling, environmental and societal norms not just in China, but also in America as I began to question my beliefs about work ethic, government, and health.
Throughout the program, our professors always emphasized process over product and that has become a foundational idea in my work — something I hadn’t yet learned after Pamoja. I realized that the documentary Lorey and I created, though it was a story we were both passionate about, was really just a catalyst for the moments where we argued over subtitles, shared dumplings, hugged goodbye to her parents, divulged our dreams for the future, laughed, cried, and listened to each other. I mean really listened and really learned. This experience was meant to teach me how to understand people, not just understand filmmaking. My perceptions and assumptions were not only challenged, but the concept of going back to LA to my little bubble was no longer an option. The world is a large place full of interesting, inspiring, and beautiful people who have so much to share. When human beings use their passion to work together, and embrace the shared struggle to better understand their own purpose on this earth; we recognize the deep connection we have regardless of culture, race, background, or socially constructed barriers. We’re not all the same. We’re fantastically different and that’s what makes connecting to one another so beautiful. That’s what makes two complete different mindsets — as polar as TCM is to western medicine — able to work in perfect harmony. And when we connect to ideas that are new to us, we begin to understand our place as an interconnected and interdependent global community.
The lifeblood of my work, across all the modalities that it takes explores, is to tell stories that connect people across the globe and elevate the benefit of collaborating across borders. No matter where I find myself in the world, I carry a part of every person I’ve connected with in my actions, my choices, and my growing understanding of who I am.