Director Q & A

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So Tom, you’ve said that a conversation should be happening around the treatment of cancer that isn’t happening right now. Can you explain what you mean?

I kind of see it like this…

…Let’s say ‘Curing Cancer’ is a company. And like all companies, ‘Curing Cancer’ has lots of departments that make up the whole. But instead of sales department, marketing, distribution, production etc, there’s Western Medicine, Eastern Medicine, Alternatives, Pharma, Research, Charities and fundraisers and the patients themselves who make up the ‘Curing Cancer’ company… all of whom are trying to reach the same goal – cure cancer. More or less, right?

But instead of all of those departments working together, sharing ideas, brainstorming, helping one another, talking and communicating, they are, broadly speaking – arguing, pointing fingers and blaming all of the other departments for why the company isn’t getting the job done.

So… why aren’t all the departments talking? There needs to be a staff meeting if you ask me. I am hoping this film will be a stepping-stone toward that happening, a catalyst for this conversation to begin, or if it’s already begun in some part of the country or world, then breathe more life into it.

Does this film intend to answer the question “Alternative vs Orthodox – which one is really better?”

No. In order to really test which modality would be best we would need many things, including a clinical trial, two very large groups of people of exactly the same age with the same cancer at the same stage to then conduct a very closely supervised trial using the two modalities.

It would get even more complicated than that when we decided what drugs/alternative treatments to use, as well as figuring out the ethics around giving people treatments that weren’t already proven to have an effect. The medical world is thorough in the ethics department, for good reason.

All of this is just the beginning, and this alone would cost millions, hundreds of millions to implement.

What this is doing is exploring why cancer treatment in the UK is not as successful as it should be. The answer is complex – the system is struggling, it’s arguably under-resourced, not every option for treatment is available within it. And as part of that there is a question to be asked about whether alternative practices – many of which do seem to bear results for certain people in certain situations – should be taken more seriously by the medical community

The two stories we’re following – Grant and Surinder – become gateways to that conversation. The give us access to people’s relationship to their treatment and the conflicts surrounding them on a wider scale. It’s a human journey. The science will be there, the discussion will be there. But it’s not a comparison to determine which is better than the other.

So is this not a film promoting alternative medicine?

Not at all. It’s a discussion on the relationship these people have with their treatments. There is a huge divide about what is good and what is bad. We are facilitating a conversation about it –  we are open to hearing about and exploring anything Grant and Surinder chose and where the paths of these choices lead us… but we are also questioning these choices without bias, and intend to allow the audience to make up their own minds on how they feel about these choices.

So what is the conflict that the title of the film refers to?

I suppose the headline is that it’s the conflict against cancer. But within that there are many different conflicts at play. Do we trust our doctors? Do we trust the system? Do we trust our doctors? Do we trust ourselves? See, it’s not just about conflict in terms of an active fight. It’s about conflicting opinions that bear down on people’s decisions, and the internal conflict that patients face when trying to navigate the best pathway to survival.  

You know, Grant Branton is trying to get from Brighton to his oncologist to get a dose of chemo in the hope he might keep himself alive. Surinder Paul is struggling keep a social life because she’s so weak. Grant is trying to enjoy time with his wife, Christine. Surinder is trying to fill out  forms for benefits because she can’t work. Grant is trying to enjoy a biscuit (which apparently he can’t have anymore because of the sugar) or a game of rugby, like a normal human. Surinder has given up all her favourite treats because of diet.

So. I saw there was potential value in illustrating these conflicts, their impacts and begin a conversation around moving forward, with the aim of bridging people together instead of dividing.

There is a lot of divide. I wonder if there needs to be.

What did you think of Grant and Surinder’s attitudes to their conditions and their approach to treatment?

At first I couldn’t understand why Surinder wouldn’t have a mastectomy. It was logical for me that if she could cut the tumor out then all these problems would be solved.

I thought Grant was tackling his tumors in a way that I would.  

Over the course of the experience with them I discovered the many shades of grey, and that Surinder has her reasons for choosing the route she has taken. I deeply respect them and understand why she is walking the path she is.

And Grant too, ironically, has had a lot of negative consequences for choosing his path – so it’s been a lesson in ‘you know nothing, Tom’.

Everyone is different. It’s not black and white. What would work for one doesn’t for another.

What have been the biggest challenges for you as a film maker?

The most challenging aspect of this film has been learning the landscape of cancer, the medical profession and what It’s all about. Academics have their own language. In my normal life I don’t use Latin names for anything. I’m just a lowly film maker!

The other aspect that has been challenging is negotiating my relationship with Grant, his wife Christine, and Surinder during very intense and emotional periods of their life. How do I navigate that? How do you stick a camera in someone’s face right after they have been told horrendous news and ask them to ‘tell me what just happened and how do you feel?’

It’s very sensitive and very tricky but I think we all felt that this was an important project and we’ve managed to find a way to get it work

How can you stay objective when you’re dealing with such personal emotions in your contributors?

When I’ve been with Grant and Surinder it’s been very difficult to stay detached. And to be honest I think I’d actually worry about myself as a human being if I didn’t feel emotionally involved. I’ve effectively lived with them both for 18 months and it’s impossible not to care about what happens to them.

But in spite of the emotional pull that their stories have had on me, I’ve been totally objective in the way I’ve recorded them. I’ve never intervened, I’ve never offered an opinion to them on their choices, I’ve simply documented their experiences – on their terms, not mine.

Of course I have my own views, and those views have been influenced by what Grant and Surinder have shared with me. Some of them will be expressed in the film. But the point is that I’m telling their stories objectively. As they would wish them to be told. And as a film-maker that’s extremely important to me

If a viewer of this film only took one thing away from it what would you like that to be?

That cancer takes over your life. Be grateful for your health and have compassion and respect for those on the front line. Everyone on the front line. 

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