Tuesday, March 24, 2015

As close to the bone as filmmaking gets: Ken Burns Presents "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies"

A biography of cancer / First the book,
now the film
Imagine the problems that would be alleviated if a cure for cancer were found.

In the spirit of learning and understanding, last week my wife and I attended a screening of the new Ken Burns Presents "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies," a film by Barak Goodman, at the invitation of KQED, our PBS affiliate, in San Francisco.

The film, a three part, six-hour documentary, will debut next week from March 30-April 1 on PBS -- and I highly recommend you see it.

After all, convening dialogue in the pursuit of lifelong learning can only lead to a better understanding of our world, right?

We saw a 45-minute preview that included portions from all three parts, followed by an interview and a Q & A session with Barak Goodman. The Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated film director reminded us how we are all impacted by cancer and noted how some of us will die because of the deadly disease.

"Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies" is based on physician, researcher, and award-winning science writer Siddhartha Mukherjee's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, which examines cancer with "a cellular biologist's precision, a historian's perspective, and a biographer's passion."

Through Goodman's direction, the film tells the complete story of cancer, "from its first description in an ancient Egyptian scroll to the gleaming laboratories of modern research institutions," according to the program's website. "At six hours, the film interweaves a sweeping historical narrative; with intimate stories about contemporary patients; and an investigation into the latest scientific breakthroughs that may have brought us, at long last, to the brink of lasting cures."

The film combines science and case studies with history -- more than 100 people were interviewed and 700 hours of film were produced over a two-year period -- and, after previewing "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies," it's easy to see the influence filmmaker Ken Burns had on the project as executive producer. Call it the Ken Burns effect, if you will, of panning and zooming from still imagery and using lots of talking heads on camera to tell the story.

"There's a lot of Ken Burns stuff (techniques) in it," said Goodman. "While his finger prints are all over it, the really great thing about Ken is he gave us the space to make the film."

Much of the film took place at the The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Md., and at the Charleston Area Medical center in Charleston, West Virginia.

The film tugs on a lot of heartstrings and emotions. "It was extremely emotionally challenging because we got very, very close to the patients we filmed, some of whom didn't survive their cancer," said Goodman.

In a PBS promo for the film, Burns said that "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies" is "about as close to the bone as filmmaking gets for me. Cancer has been a huge part of my life. There is never a moment in my awareness as a human being that I didn't know that something was desperately wrong with my mother, at 2 1/2 to 3 years. She was sick with cancer. She died when I was 11, almost 12 years old.

"The reason why I do what I do comes from this illness and this death and watching it  happen," he said.

After a 10-year struggle with the disease, Burns' mother died of breast cancer.

Cancer is a monumental and difficult but solvable problem, says Goodman. "We hope the series makes people hope; to not shy away from the disease."

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