“You know you are truly alive when you are living among lions.” – Isak Dinesen
This is quite possibly one of the most traumatic films ever made, particularly given that it is a real-life documentary. It’s also one of the most inspiring because of its depiction of courage and the very thin line between fighting for a life and learning when to let go. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert have created an uncompromising account of paediatric cancer. On completion, it has become a near four-hour film concerning five children and teenagers struggles against leukaemia and has been shown recently as a five-part TV series for the PBS network in the US. The film version has had a limited run-out in theatres and played at film festivals this year across the world, beginning at Sundance. Don’t be deterred by the film’s length as this is cinema at its most engaging.
Sometime in the late 1990s at Cincinnati’s Children’s Hospital, where the heart-wrenching brave battles were being fought for children, five particular stories were about to unfold. The chief oncologist at the hospital, Dr. Robert Arceci, approached the award-winning documentary filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Recihert to follow the progress of five children and their families. This was especially personal for the couple because their own daughter was a teenage leukaemia survivor. They wilfully agreed and started filming on July 4th 1997, with the main bulk of the filming taking place between 1998 and 2003. What we are left with are the stories of the five children – Alex, Tim, Justin, Jen, and Al – and their families, and the brilliant doctors and nurses of the hospital.
Justin is 19 and has fought leukaemia since he was ten years old. His survival has been something of a miracle, with periodical remissions, but now approaching his 20th Birthday the disease is still threatening to take him. Seven-year-old Alex was just four when she was diagnosed with leukaemia, the most heartbreaking news for any parent. With the help of the passionately committed doctors, who draw allusions to human angels, she has a fighting chance. Because of her cheery nature and zest for life, it’s sometimes difficult to remember her condition. At the hospital Alex still remains cheeky, sociable, dignified and hopeful for the future.
The other three stories include 16-year-old Tim, whose father was murdered when he was young and has been brought up by his caring but naïve mother; naïve as she seems to be mainly unaware of the potential fatality of his condition. However, the illness and losing his father has not altered his optimism and the belief that in this world everyone is equal. Jen, on the other hand, is a quiet and unassuming young child. Her parents are comfortably well off but her mother realises the seriousness of her condition and has to give up her well-paid job to care for her. Finally, there is Al who is a quietly confident 11-year-old, either passively accepting his condition or too shocked to be emotional about it.
Watching the film is an emotionally traumatic rollercoaster but, at the same time, a triumph of the human spirit so powerful that it somehow becomes both uplifting and rejuvenating. Seeing these children show the passion for life and their bravery is awe-inspiring. The bravery of the families – torn apart, picking themselves up after each setback, failed hope, and renewed hope – is also proof that love will surpass all of the greatest of human challenges that is the threat of death, particularly child mortality. The torment of a young innocent child that is so full of life, with their hopes and plans, curtailed by a killer disease is the emotional engagement of this documentary by two wonderfully compassionate people that no one will be able to disengage from.
This documentary was not about happy endings but practically everyone in it is a hero and that includes all those behind the camera. Three of the five featured children will not make it. For the two that do, their lives have been changed forever and the repercussions of the disease mean they may be more susceptible to illness and other complications later in life. The battle may have been won for them, but the toll has been taken on their bodies and their lives, socially, economically and emotionally. By the end of the documentary, we have become part of the journey, part of the families even, and it’s something we won’t forget. Because in death, as in life, we are all passing through this world and no one knows how long they have. Heartbreaking though it might seem, an early death is still a full life. The child has not been lost, they have merely been passing through quicker, and their role has been played. They have moved on out of this world and we shall all follow them sooner or later.
A Lion in the House is showing at the ICA this weekend, from 29th July 2006, as part of the Britdoc festival, and will continue for a five-day run.