A new documentary film by Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker Jeff Chiba Stearns explores the struggles of mixed-race blood cancer patients forced to reflect on their multi-cultural identity as they search for matching bone marrow donors that fit their unique genetic makeup.
The film entitled Mixed Match is already touring the film festivals and it's hoped its success will not only bring the message of how important mixed-race bone marrow donation is to millions of people but in doing so it will help save lives.
Jeff is no stranger to Intermix, one of his earlier short films What Are You Anyways? was based on his own personal experiences of growing up as a mixed-race person in Kelowna, part of British Columbia, Canada. It looks at particular periods in his life where he battles with finding an identity - from his childhood origins to his acknowledgement of once being ashamed of his Japanese heritage. What Are You Anyways? won the award for best animated short subject at the Canadian Awards for Electronic and Animated Arts that year.
Jeff recently spoke to efilmcritic.com about making the documentary Mixed Match.
So how did this movie come together from your perspective?
I directed and executive produced Mixed Match. In 2010, I was contacted by Athena Asklipiadis, founder of Mixed Marrow, the only group in North America that specifically recruits multiethnic people to sign up to the bone marrow registries. After speaking to Athena, I had no idea about the challenges that multiethnic patients with rare blood diseases faced when trying to find a bone marrow transplant. What Athena told me was shocking, that finding a stem cell match for a multiethnic patient has been compared to finding a needle in a haystack, with one in a million odds.
For these patients, siblings only hold about a one in four chance of being a match and so most blood cancer patients have to look outside their families for a match. I realized that with multiethnic people becoming one of the fastest growing demographics in North America this was a topic few people knew about but a topic everyone should know about. So Athena and I teamed up and hit the road to capture the many stories we would use to create Mixed Match.
While you are working on a movie, what keeps you going? What drives you, creatively?
This documentary took six years to complete from start to finish. I was conceived in the summer of 2010 and finished in the summer of 2016. We shot over 200 hours of footage. Sometimes I had no idea where this film was going. All I knew was that there were many stories to capture. The quest to tell these patients' stories is what drove us. As well, we were motivated by the realization that this film could save someone's life.
Creatively, I filmed the majority of the footage myself which was quite fun. It was tiring but fun. I also edited the entire film, which took over a year. I would have liked to have had someone else edit the film but in the end, I realized I was the closest to the footage and I knew the story I wanted to tell in my head.
What was your biggest challenge making Mixed Match, and how did you over-come it?
It's always challenging filming in hospitals because there are so many factors to consider. As a filmmaker, you have to respect the patient at all times and their health and safety always comes first. It is difficult seeing the subjects your filming with dealing with the affects of chemotherapy or radiation. It takes such a toll on their body and mind.
As a documentary filmmaker you always want to keep filming no matter what, but I learned a lot filming Mixed Match, sometimes there are times you just have to put down the camera. I became close to all our subjects and they became friends. It is always hard to see your friends suffering and in pain.
Sadly, one our subjects passed away during the making of the film. I didn't include his story in the film as his story was just too large but he was similar in age to me and had a lot of the same interests. Dealing with his loss was definitely the biggest challenge I had to deal with during the filming of Mixed Match. Although, his story really made me understand the true importance of why a documentary on this topic is so needed. It really helped motivate me to continue filming and capture more stories.
If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be? The moment where you thought you had something?
Every patient we filmed with left a lasting impression on me and it meant so much to have such personal access to their lives. Although, one of my favourite stories in the film is when we filmed our subject, Alexandria Taylor, moments after waking up from her bone marrow harvest operation. Alexandria had just donated her bone marrow to an anonymous stranger, a little girl somewhere in the US. Going into the operation, Alexandria was strangely excited and giddy because she knew the potential that she could be helping save this little girl's life. After Alexandria wakes up from her operation, her entire family goes in to see how she's doing.
Alexandria who is probably still a bit woozy from coming out of the operation just starts cracking jokes with her boyfriend and father. At one point she even starts twerking when she gets up out of the bed for the first time. Considering they had just drawn a few pints of bone marrow out of her hip, which can be a painful process, it is amazing she could even get up, let alone start dancing. I really cherish these lighthearted moments after Alexandria's operation because it helps bring a little humour into a film that is quite heavy at times.
I was really touched by Alexandria's willingness to help someone she had never met or may never meet. After seeing how excited and happy Alexandria was after donating bone marrow to this little girl, a complete stranger, it really helped put things in perspective for me.
Look out for Mixed Match coming to a screen near you soon.