Monday, July 10, 2006


Today's post will stray a bit from the political arena to a reality topic of sadness, hope and bravery.

Independent lens
on PBS is airing a marvelous and inspiring documentary called A LION IN THE HOUSE. The name comes from a line by Danish author Isak Dinesen — “You know you are truly alive when you are living among lions” — Which is what these cancer patients soon find out. Just how alive they really are and their desire to live is so strong that it can only help to get them through this devastating health crisis.

This film is so heart wrenching it will send you into the depths of sadness. The word Cancer conjures up unbelievable fear in us all but when this deadly malady attacks our most precious loved, OUR CHILDREN, one can only sense what kind of direful anguish a parent of a cancer victim would encounter.

It has already aired on June 19th but you can check your local listings as to when it will be shown again. (click here to go to PBS site) or buy the DVD here. See a clip by clicking here.


follows the stories of five exceptional children and their families as
they battle pediatric cancer. From the trauma of diagnosis to the
physical toll of treatment, this series documents the stresses that can
tear a family apart as well as the courage of children facing the
possibility of death with honesty, dignity and humor. As the film
compresses six years into one narrative, it puts viewers in the shoes of
parents, physicians, nurses, siblings, grandparents and social workers
who struggle to defeat an indiscriminate and predatory disease.

The Kids This unprecedented portrait of pediatric cancer’s life-altering effects introduces seven-year-old Alex, a bundle of energy with dark eyes and curls; and Tim, a mercurial, quick-witted 16-year-old with a thousand-watt smile. Justin is amiable and stalwart at 19, despite ten
years of fighting the disease. Jen is a serious, quiet six-year-old and Al is a quicksilver, wry 11-year-old.

Each child has a unique experience in confronting the disease and the treatment, but each embarks on a journey that is bewildering, terrifying, nearly unbearable and certainly quite unlike anything most
people associate with the normal experience of childhood. The families of the children join them on their harrowing odyssey, and regardless of outcome, no one involved will ever be the same again.

The Parents Even as they cope with their children’s pain and discomfort, the parents must also find a way to finance the enormous costs of treatment. Alex’s father Scott estimates that his insurance company has paid two
million dollars so far for his daughter’s treatment. Meanwhile, Al’s mother, Regina, has minimal insurance coverage and must navigate a mystifying bureaucracy to get her son’s medical bills paid. And Marietha, who used to work before Tim got sick, is now on welfare and must spend money she can’t afford on cab fares to visit Tim in the hospital.

Meet The Families »

MEET THE FILMMAKERS Directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert take their cameras into these dilemmas and inside hospital rooms, family homes and medical staff meetings, providing audiences with a rare look behind-the-scenes as families and medical professionals wrestle with difficult questions and negotiate a plan of action. Agonizing questions arise: in the face of a persistently negative prognosis, how do parents and children find hope for each other? When does optimism become denial? When a child doesn’t respond, at what point should treatment be stopped? And who should make the decisions—the parents, the doctors, or the children themselves?

Points of view diverge and nerves shatter as the families and children confront such life and death decisions in this intimate, intense and ultimately inspiring documentary about ordinary people working through the impossible.

Read the Filmmaker Bios »

Read the Filmmaker Q&A »

Read the Filmmaker Journal »

See the Film Credits »

At Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

, children find support and treatment for cancer and other diseases, while families learn to cope with the demands of caregiving and the hospital’s doctors and researchers work to find new treatments and cures.

Learn more about the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital »

Learn about the medical staff »

PS: Please read "WITH EYES AND HEART WIDE OPEN" to open your eyes and heart to this type of sadness and hope. thinkingblue


Al Fields, 11, and his mother, Regina, allowed the producers of A Lion in the House to film the ups and downs of his cancer treatment. (Below Photo: Julia Reichert.)

With eyes and heart wide open

'Honored access’ to cancer ward comes to filmmakers who’ve been there

To viewers who happen upon the Independent Lens presentation A Lion in the House in June, the title may be puzzling.

They’ll learn soon enough that it comes from a line by Danish author Isak Dinesen — “You know you are truly alive when you are living among lions” — and it applies to five families who have a child with cancer and live moment to moment, staring down a most stealthy aggressor.

It is a familiar world to Ohio filmmaker Julia Reichert, whose own daughter was diagnosed with cancer in 1996 and recovered after a year of treatment. Now Reichert herself is being treated for a rare form of lymphoma.

Speaking at the Television Critics Association press tour in January, Reichert recalled her daughter’s time in the cancer ward as a “year of hell.”

She watched her child’s every move and nurtured her through the emotional losses of being abandoned by her friends. The harrowing experience evoked feelings of being a hypervigilant mother/protector, emotions she recognized in the parents filmed in A Lion in the House.

Reichert and Steven Bognar, her partner in life and filmmaking, re-entered this world as documentarians in 1997 when Dr. Robert Arceci, then the chief oncologist at Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati, approached them about producing a documentary on childhood cancer. His inspiration was Hoop Dreams, the 1994 documentary that followed two African-American boys from Chicago as they bet their lives on careers in basketball. It was a hit in theaters and on PBS.

Bognar (below) and Reichert knew their experiences with her child's cancer prepared them to film other families caught in the fragile, intimate world of the cancer ward. (Photo: Annie Reichert.)

Arceci says he wanted a “serious documentary” that looked at pediatric cancer “from a 360-degree perspective — the patients, the caregivers, the doctors.”

He thought a good narrative documentary would be more effective than any training video at sensitizing medical
professionals who care for sick people, and it would have more credibility. “Often what we see is advertisements in this business," he says.

“I wanted the film to show the complexity of the stories from the point of view of the caretakers. I didn’t want to show them at their best or worst but just what their issues are.”

“As I look at it now, it was really a crazy idea,” Arceci says.

Disparities based on wealth Reichert and Bognar were uneasy about returning to pediatric cancer wards but knew that not many filmmakers could take up Arceci’s idea. On the suggestion of a local film critic, the doctor had called them, not knowing they had family experience with childhood cancer. “If we hadn’t been through it, there’s no way we would have thought we should make this film,” says Bognar. “The world you’re walking into there is so fragile and intimate. I wouldn’t have felt I had the right to be there without that connection.”

Once they negotiated access and editorial control issues with the hospital, Reichert and Bognar ran with the idea, initially paying for it out of their own pockets.

Their four-hour series, scheduled by PBS for June 21 and 22, tells the stories of five kids with cancer and the families and caregivers who support them through treatment. In some
cases, the families must learn to let go as the children’s lives slip away. Three of the families are white and solidly middle-class; two are African-American and headed by single moms.

Their experiences point up disparities in treatment based on their resources and support systems. A major outreach campaign tied to the broadcast debut addresses many of these issues.

The film shimmers with the intimacy created in some long-form documentaries. The characters are complex, sympathetic and so revealing that it’s easy to be drawn into their stories.

There’s Justin Ashcraft, an 18-year-old who spent so much of his adolescence battling cancer that he has no friends. He won’t entertain suggestions that he sign a living will. His parents, who are divorced but share Justin’s caretaking, are entirely focused on bringing him back to health.

The demands that Justin’s medical care place on his family—and differences of opinion between his parents, siblings and doctors over what can and should be done—develop into a central conflict in the program.

Viewers also meet Alex Lougheed, a 7-year-old girl with a dazzling smile and personality to match. Her parents don’t agree on the best course of treatment, and viewers’ sympathies are likely to shift between her mother, who wants to provide as much normalcy in Alex’s life as possible, and her father, who wants to pursue every course of treatment.

Tim Woods is a 15-year-old boy who loves all the attention he gets when he’s first diagnosed but later has trouble gaining weight and doesn’t want to follow his doctor’s orders. His mother is a widowed, single mom and pillar of strength for the extended family. When Tim’s condition worsens, she has problems turning to others for the support she needs.

In the second two-hour installment, filmmakers introduce two additional children. Al Fields is an 11-year-old who recovers from cancer and then begins acting out. His mother, Regina, is a single mom who works in a nursing home, and she handles the ups and downs of Al’s treatment with humor and aplomb. Jen Moore is a 9-year-old whose mom gives up a high-profile career to devote herself to her daughter’s treatment.

By taking viewers into these families’ lives and treatment rooms, Reichert and Bognar create a filmic experience that is as riveting as it is grueling. You don’t want to watch little hairless Jen’s spinal tap or the administration of Tim’s feeding tube, but Reichert and Bognar get you to care so much that you can’t turn away.

The filmmakers are “with these families at the most intimate moments of their lives,” says Gordon Quinn of Kartemquin Films, the Chicago independent production house that brought Hoop Dreams and the New Americans to PBS. They capture the struggles within families that aren’t easily shared with outsiders, such as the emotional fallout of Justin’s cancer on his healthy siblings.

“You can’t make that kind of film if you don’t have that kind of trust from the families,” Quinn says. Reichert’s experience with her daughter’s childhood cancer qualified her to make this documentary, he says.

People in the film trusted Reichert and Bognar so deeply that the producers reached a rare and “honored access point,” says Claire Aguilar, program director for the Independent Television Service, a major funder of the series. “There was total consent to the filming and it was an honor [for the filmmakers] to be there, yet it’s not exploitative.”

The filmmakers recognize that some viewers may reject the program out of hand because they expect films about cancer to be clinical nightmares, but that’s not what they’ve heard from prebroadcast audiences.

“We’ve had test screenings as we finished it, and the reaction we get is, ‘This film is not what we expected,’” Bognar says. Viewers are surprised that it’s “not an issue film about cancer
and they don’t find out a lot of specifics about cancer. It’s about relationships being tested,” he says.

A Lion in the House is really about the human condition and how to deal with death, Reichert says.

“These are powerful human dramas and many, many people live through this,” says Quinn.

“Documentaries are about what really happens in life,” he says, “and that’s one of the accomplishments of the film. It gets us to come to terms with that.”

Learning how to be Reichert and Bognar live in Yellow Springs, a haven for intellectuals, activists and Antioch College in west central Ohio. Her credits include two Oscar-nominated feature documentaries, Seeing Red (1983) and Union Maids (1976). She produced both of these films and others with Jim Klein, the father of her daughter. Reichert and Klein still share a professorship at Wright State University in nearby Dayton.

Bognar teaches at Antioch and produced Personal Belongings, a feature-length documentary presented on P.O.V. in 1996. The film is a loving tribute to his immigrant father, who fought the Soviets in the Hungarian Revolution. Bognar has “a poetic visual style,” says Aguilar.

“Together, they’re an interesting team,” says Aguilar. “Technically, they’re really good filmmakers, but they also wanted to talk about the surround and what the film would mean to

Quinn, a longtime friend and consulting editor, describes Reichert as a filmmaking pioneer. “We all talk about outreach today, but she was one of the very first people for whom that was 50
percent of making the film,” he says.

After working out the agreement with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital that allowed them to film in the pediatric cancer ward and laid out ground rules, Reichert and Bognar began shooting in July 1997, when they visited the Lougheed family at home and filmed Alex as a child at play, scooting around the patio on her Big Wheel. By the end of shooting last fall, more than eight years later, they had 525 hours of footage.

"There was a big learning curve to know how to be, remember what to ask and how get to the next place we’ve got to be,” says Bognar. “It was a challenge on every level—logistical, ethical, cinematic and sound.”

During that time the most important thing to Reichert was “what was happening with those children,” she says. “We couldn’t really explain that to anyone. No one understood what we were doing until year six, when they could see a rough cut.”

Last summer, even before completing the filming, they began scrambling to deliver the series in PBS’s desired broadcast configuration: two, 120-minute installments, instead of the three chapters originally envisioned. “We had to pull out all the stops to make it,” says Reichert. “Since August our lives have been utterly insane.”

“That’s one big reason why we didn’t notice that Julia was getting sick,” Bognar says. They were working round the clock and thought her fatigue was a natural consequence of the demands of finishing a film.

But early this year they learned otherwise. Before the couple left to promote the series’ PBS premiere at the TV critics’ press tour in January, Reichert’s doctor insisted that she go in for a CAT scan the day after she returned. They learned the results of those tests after arriving in Salt Lake City for screenings at the Sundance Film festival.

“It was one day before our world premiere and we had 30 to 40 people coming—my family, the families from the film,” says Reichert. “We were lucky that we had three oncologists in our condo.”

Reichert has a rare cancer called “gray zone lymphoma” that is at an advanced stage. “It’s an extreme form,” she said. “Almost no one in this country gets it.” She faces six to eight rounds of chemotherapy every three weeks. “They knock you on your butt,” she said in a February interview before her second round of treatment.

“She’s got a serious fight,” Arceci says. He was among those who traveled to Sundance and persuaded her to return home early to begin treatment. “I said, ‘It’s not easy to let go—yet you’re not going to be here to see any of this happen if you don’t get on the plane.’”

Before she left Sundance, Reichert reported the diagnosis to people who had let the couple film their fights for survival. “I have learned so much from them, and we had to tell them this after I got over the embarrassment of saying that I had serious cancer,” says Reichert.

“They were not weirded out by it.”

Web page posted April 5, 2006

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