Oscar-winning director Ross Kauffman's new FOCUS FORWARD short, FIRE WITH FIRE, which explores the groundbreaking new cancer research of Dr. Carl June and his research team at the University of Pennsylvania, who are reengineering the HIV virus to fight attack cancer cells, premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival last month. The subjects of Kauffman’s film, Dr. June and his 7-year-old patient Emma Whitehead, were also featured in a recent New York Times article.
Below, Kauffman explains the genesis of the film and the immense inspiration he found during its creation.
Focus Forward: How did you find out about the work Dr. Carl June and the University of Pennsylvania are doing?
Ross Kauffman: I came across an article in the New York Times in August of 2011. The team at UPENN had just put out their finding about their first three patients who had undergone the clinical trial.
FF: What were the first steps you took to start making this film?
RK: My first step was calling Denise Grady, the reporter for the New York Times piece. I originally wanted to make a short film chronicling the first patient's remarkable journey through this experimental trial. He had undergone the treatment and was (and continues to be) in remission. He had done a small amount of publicity and decided that he didn't want to do anymore. I tried, through Denise, who was very generous, to reach out to him, but he was not responsive to my inquiries, which I perfectly understand.
To slightly digress, when we first started reaching out to the team at UPENN in September of 2011, their PR person told us they were interested, but they couldn't commit to letting us make a film and that they needed some time. We called every two weeks, and they said the same thing: please just give us some more time. This went on for almost a year. There were many times when we were going to call it quits and find a new subject, but there was something about this story that told us to stick with it. We knew we were up against a deadline to finish the film by the end of the year, so it was a bit dicey. But we stuck with it and finally received permission to make the film around October of 2012.
During the months that we were waiting for an answer, Emma Whitehead had gone though the treatment. When we found out that she was their first pediatric patient, it was only then that we decided that she should be the focus of the film.
Once again, it just goes to show you that everything happens for a reason.
FF: Where do you see the advancement of this medical find going in the near future?
RK: Who am I to say? I am just a filmmaker. The doctors have their goals and dreams that this could potentially be a cure, and maybe a prophylactic for solid tumors such as prostate, pancreatic and breast cancer, but it is just too early to say.
FF: What was the most inspiring moment you experienced making the film?
RK: Carl June is an amazing man. Humble, kind and gentle. But he is also very careful about giving false hopes about this work. When I started interviewing him, I asked him point blank what he and his team were trying to do. I was looking for the answer that he said in our pre-interview, which was, "We are trying to cure cancer". But he was very reticent to say it on camera. For some reason, much to my dismay, he wouldn't go there! Finally, I yelled from behind the camera the first question I ask in the film which is, "Why is it so hard for you to say those words, 'We are trying to cure cancer"????? And his incredible answer was, "Maybe it's because...what if you actually succeed?"
And of course, my most inspiring moments continue every time I get a text message from Emma's Dad saying she is healthy, happy and having all the fun a seven year old girl should have.
FF: Would you be interested in following the innovation and eventually creating a full-length documentary?
RK: If it was just about the innovation, I'm not so sure. But for me, it's the human connection that I'm attracted to. And everyone on this project, from the doctors, to the support staff at UPENN and CHOP, to the incredible patients that we had a chance to meet, were all wonderful, humble, caring people trying to make a difference and wanting to tell their story. And it was their attitude that we as filmmakers are so attracted to.
So my answer is, of course I'd like to follow this up.
Watch Ross Kauffman’s inspiring short “Fire With Fire” here.
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