James Loizou - The Unlikely Story of Making a Documentary About Stroke
The American Stroke Association was the science advisor on the new film, A Teachable Moment. Learn more about the story behind the film in today’s blog post, first shared here.
In 2015, Mark French, the CEO of my company, suffered both ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes.
The news was sudden.
The diagnosis was grim.
And the staff reactions were devastating.
How did this happen? He's too young, we thought! Or at least too healthy to have a stroke, right?
Wait. What is a stroke, anyway?
We were left feeling confused and powerless but wanted to act. To show support. We had to do something! So we made a video.
Our humble montage of office well-wishes was delivered to Mark on an iPad. As he began to bend the odds of recovery to his favor (seemingly through sheer force of will), he credited that simple tribute as a guiding light through his arduous rehabilitation, perhaps foreshadowing the undeniable role that a well-meaning, well-produced video can have on stirring great change.
Mark's return to the office was as triumphant as it was improbable, applying his signature get-up-and-go-ness to finding a new normal.
And as he carried with him an almost mythical story of recovery, Mark knew that other survivors were not so fortunate. He became an advocate, dedicating his life and resources to teaching others what he did not know.
Because, after all, strokes can happen to anyone.
And every 40 seconds a stroke radically changes a person's life!
And over 80% of strokes are preventable!!
By simply knowing Mark, you knew the statistics. But it wasn't enough. More people needed to know the truth. We had to do something! So we made a movie.
Casting a Real Life Story with Real Life People
As an aside, I run LAI Video, a video agency within Leading Authorities that specializes in digital storytelling. But we normally do the short stuff, like a 30-second commercial or a 90-second animation or a five-minute explainer video, which, at the time, would have been pretty long for us. The thought of making a feature-length documentary was unprecedented.
Our perspective on stroke was largely fixed to Mark’s experiences, and we knew that this project had to be bigger.
We reached out to the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association to serve as consultants. Together, we carefully identified other survivors to make the film relatable to a wide audience.
After reviewing many amazing survivor stories, we rounded out the cast by selecting three incredible individuals in the Greater Washington region.
Anne Dailey, the loving wife, dedicated mother and legal powerhouse, shared her story of how a weekend trip to the office shifted her life forever.
Lee Stroy, family man and father of five, described his story of transforming his physical, emotional and spiritual behavior after suffering three strokes.
And Roderick Dunston, the uninsured, self-made symbol for recovery, told his unique story of perseverance and pay-it-forwardness at any cost.
Unapologetically optimistic by design, we wanted to offer a positive message of hope and a reminder that with the right resources and education — and a healthy dose of love — we can prevent, treat and beat stroke.
Making a Movie
James Favata, the film’s director and our in-house visionary, pushed our creative and budgetary limits to realize something of the highest and most contemporary standards in modern-day documentary-making. As the larger narrative unfolded in production, he pushed for this story to take greater focus on stroke prevention and living a better life, expanding A Teachable Moment’s audience to virtually all human beings!
Tori Furphy continued to manage the general operations of LAI Video, while balancing the demands of this enormous pro-bono endeavor. She normally leads a team of seasoned producers across our company’s many projects, but was thrilled to wear the hat of producer herself on this film. She personally interviewed our amazing subjects to make this thing emotional and assembled and managed a growing network of medical partners to keep this thing respectable.
We brought on Dr. Alexander Dromerick and Dr. Richard Benson, medical experts from MedStar NRH and NIH (and many, many other impressive groups), who explained the science behind the disease, underlining the urgency and attainability of stroke prevention. And accomplished authors Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Neal Barnard joined our medical ensemble, outlining practical dietary and lifestyle changes that can reduce one's risks.
This chorus of really smart people was accompanied by medically sound and objectively adorable illustrations. We encouraged our interviewees to use vivid metaphors to describe abstract concepts, allowing our animators to bring their words to life. This approach, this humor is jarring at first, but quickly became one of A Teachable Moment’s hallmarks and a welcome complement to the film’s very real subject matter.
Over the next year, we would follow Mark, Anne, Lee and Roderick as much as they would allow. At home, work, the gym, doctor's appointments, organized races, disorganized social outings. We would befriend their loved ones as we asked them to relive some of the hardest moments that any family can endure.
These became some of the most sensitive but significant stories that we have ever been trusted to tell. Our team aimed to handle the material thoughtfully, documenting the subjects with modest directness, emphasizing strength through emotional vulnerability — allowing the film to speak plainly and powerfully.
While filming A Teachable Moment, we were devastated to lose two family members — Roderick, one of the four featured stroke survivors and the film’s biggest fan, and Mark’s daughter, Kathleen French. We are grateful for their participation in this project, forever preserving emotional accounts that will continue to change lives. We dedicate A Teachable Moment to their memory.
In May, we premiered the film at the Carnegie Institution of Science to over 400 attendees, including the participants, their families, other local stroke survivors and experts from a wide range of medical organizations.
Following the screening, we fielded questions from the audience for over an hour, as the Q&A panel turned into a type of support group. Attendees shared their own personal accounts of stroke, leading to a conversation that was as beautiful as it was raw. It was clear that A Teachable Moment struck a chord and opened a discussion about a topic that can be difficult to discuss openly.
In that moment, it felt as if A Teachable Moment and LAI Video were inducted into an unofficial society — a sprawling network of non-profit organizations dedicated to stroke care and neurological research.
As film festivals accepted and exhibited the documentary, hospitals, schools, non-profits and businesses volunteered to host screenings to thousands across the country. Through word of mouth alone, private events continue to spread this documentary’s critical message from one audience to the next.
Together to End Stroke
One of the hardest parts of this whole journey was naming the darn thing. After brainstorming countless options (including, yes, “Brainstorm”), we chose A Teachable Moment. This may be a bit too on-the-nose, but it aptly summarizes the unlikely story of making a documentary about stroke.
Never has a single project demanded the collective efforts of our already really large and ridiculously talented team, becoming a metaphor unto itself of the extraordinary change that we can make when we all come together.
The cinematography from Jun Yang. The art direction from Tiffany Lewis. The visual wit from Rob Kramer. This storytelling is the product of a bunch of video nerds committed to their craft and now committed to a cause.
As we suspended our mercenary tendencies of, you know, running a business, we had the incredible opportunity to learn. To learn how to make a movie. How to premiere a movie. How to get a movie into movie festivals or onto movie streaming platforms. More importantly, we could learn how to live better lives. To be better people.
And I could not be more proud of this group of better people.
Today, we have wholly returned to our other full-time jobs, but the fight continues.
Because as much as the documentary covers, there’s so much left unexplored. What about developing research on brain plasticity? Or new treatments that address spatial neglect? Or continuing care for survivors battling aphasia?
We have to do something! So we continue to make videos. Of all kinds. For all kinds of groups.
Our journey as activist filmmakers has just begun.