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Struggling with Sickness: Four Sundance Docs Examine a Wide Array of Personal Battles with Illness

Struggling with Sickness: Four Sundance Docs Examine a Wide Array of Personal Battles with Illness

Illness is never a pleasant topic, and getting people to watch documentaries about people who are sick, either physically or mentally, can often be a tough sell. This year’s Documentary Competition section at Sundance offers four vastly different films that explore similar human themes: “So Much So Fast” chronicles a young man as he battles the crippling Lou Gehrig’s disease, “Thin” follows a group of young women as they struggle with severe eating disorders, “Wide Awake” is a filmmaker’s video diary of his lifelong insomnia affliction, and “A Lion in the House” tells the painful story of five families fighting childhood cancer.

In “A Lion in the House”, a riveting four-hour documentary, directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar spent nearly eight years documenting five children and their families as they confront childhood cancer, and the result is a raw portrait of what it means to be diagnosed with a potentially terminal illness, and a compelling study of how humans cope with loss. All the children are patients of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, but they couldn’t be more different from each other, coming from a variety of cultural and economic backgrounds.

The extraordinary access Reichert and Bognar were given create a highly detailed portrait, as they gently take their cameras into hospital rooms, medical staff meetings, and each of the families’ homes. With an unflinching eye, even the surgeries are filmed, as well as some excruciating moments when parents are faced with the choice of continuing treatment or letting their child die in peace and with dignity. Inevitably, some do die, and we see the bodies, watch the funerals, and grieve for kids we’ve never met. They even check in with the families of these children six months later, offering a more complete look at the effect of grief as time goes by.

The filmmakers use all of this remarkable footage without a hint of exploitation, instead approaching the subject with a deep respect and understanding for what the families are going through, as they, too, had seen their own daughter through a year of chemotherapy and radiation treatments before being asked to film this important documentary. The end result is a heartbreaking film that not only functions as a graceful work of art, but also as a tool for anyone dealing with a similar situation in their own life.

As reported in indieWIRE yesterday, the story surrounding “A Lion in the House” has become even more poignant as Reichert herself was just diagnosed with lymphoma – news that she and Bognar received by phone as they landed at Salt Lake City airport on their way to premiere the film here at Sundance. After attending their first two screenings last weekend, then introducing a third in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Reichert and Bognar returned home to Ohio for medical treatment on the advice of their doctors.

A spokesperson for ITVS, a funder of the PBS documentary, passed on the following statement from Julia and Steve, who have many dear friends in the film community: “The irony of receiving this news is unbelievable. We have spent the last eight years looking cancer in the eye and have had incredible role models in the kids and families who are in our film. We’re determined to get through this with the love and support of family and friends.” The entire indieWIRE team would like to express their warmest wishes to Julia, Steve, and their family, as they summon the strength they’ve learned so much about over these past years and forge ahead to healing.

Unlike cancer, which has a host of increasingly advanced options for treatment, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) is still considered an almost hopeless diagnosis by many. In “So Much So Fast“, directed by Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, ALS is identified as an “orphan disease”, meaning that even though several hundred thousand people have it, that’s not enough for the pharmaceutical companies to invest millions of dollars to develop drug treatments. The tragic results of this are demonstrated as the filmmakers follow one affected family over the course of five years as they struggle to find a cure for this paralyzing neural disorder.

When Stephen Heywood discovers he has ALS at 29 years old, his brother becomes obsessed with finding a cure, quitting his job to start a foundation in the family basement. The Heywood’s had led a charmed life until that point, and were healthy, good looking, and financially secure. When they learned of the diagnosis, they all went to extraordinary measures to defy the odds, and their foundation became a controversial lab conducting rogue experiments on mice, all in the hopes of buying Stephen and those like him just a little more time.

It’s fascinating watching a family pull together in such an intense way to save this man’s life, and agonizing to watch the disease take such a devastating toll over the years. When the wheelchair-bound Stephen can no longer speak, they rig up a computer that allows him to communicate, and when he can no longer work the mouse, his engineer brother invents a system that allows him to continue to work the device – his last lifeline of contact to the family he loves so dearly.

The concept of wasting away is even more literal in Lauren Greenfield‘s debut “Thin”, which focuses on four young women struggling with anorexia, all patients at the Renfrew Center in Coconut Grove, where Greenfield was given unprecedented access. An established photographer, Greenfield’s critically acclaimed book Girl Culture was a powerful visual commentary on the way we raise our daughters, complete with interviews of girls who embody the conflicting messages our culture inflicts on these young women. When Greenfield began documenting the lives of patients at Renfrew for Time magazine, the idea for the documentary was born.

Over a period of six months, Greenfield followed the young women as they fought this baffling disease, through treatment, counseling sessions, and even into their rooms and bathrooms, arguably providing the most comprehensive and honest look at anorexia ever captured on film. It’s saddening to watch these beautiful young women starving themselves, and the scenes in the cafeteria are particularly compelling. As the patients take miniscule bites of food under staff supervision, we see the pain and panic of one girl who has to eat an entire cupcake for her birthday celebration.

In another astonishing case, Shelly, a psychiatric nurse, was force-fed through a tube for five years before finally admitting herself to Renfrew – after ten life-threatening hospitalizations. A well-spoken and attractive 30-year-old mom of two, she can’t seem to escape the ravages of her disorder, finally stating, “This is the one thing that I want so bad. I just want to be thin. So if it takes dying to get there, so be it.” One by one, the girls are released from the center, often because their insurance runs out, but rarely because they’re healed.

In a less harrowing documentary, filmmaker Alan Berliner (“Nobody’s Business“, “The Sweetest Sound“) confronts his own demons in a video diary about his lifelong struggle with insomnia. “Wide Awake” is not just a personal film about a man who has a sleep disorder, but a look into a restless and obsessive mind that has never known true peace. When Berliner turns the camera on himself as he lies awake in bed, his wife begs him to let her fall back asleep, and it becomes clear that his sleep deprivation is affecting not only his physical and mental health, but also his marriage. After his child is born, Berliner reacts by giving the infant all the sleep he can’t have himself, as he observes the peaceful slumber with some pride and a little envy.

As different as they are from each other, what these films have in common is their ability to remind us that suffering touches everyone, and it’s how these difficult challenges are met along the way that can make the difference in one’s quality of life. Being confronted with illness means being faced with a series of choices, and each of these four documentaries provides an engaging look at people as they grapple with key life decisions. Although sometimes agonizing, films like these are not only often riveting to watch, but they provide an invaluable reminder that life is, indeed, far too short.

[Get the latest from the Sundance Film Festival throughout the day in indieWIRE’s special Park City ’06 section.]

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