Over the past week, I have the pleasure of interviewing Jonathan Smith, a recent graduate of the Yale School of Public Health, and a current lecturer there, to the Blog. Jonathan has been working on a documentary about his research entitled “They Go To Die.” The interview is split into three parts: Part 1 was a broad background to the area, Part 2 covered the filming experience, and finally Part 3 will talk about the role of storytelling in research. Jonathan has mounted a campaign on Kickstarter to help fund the editing and final steps in making this movie a reality, and if you would like to support him, please click here.

What do you see as the role of filmmaking and storytelling in Epidemiology and research in general?

It seems like there is a history of pitting personal stories against data and research. You are either a believer in one or the other. I have no idea why, they work so harmoniously together. I think a few activist films have skewed this perception of how they can work together.

But honestly, this surly perception we have in accepting stories as valid isn’t uncalled for. They have much more room for bias. I said once that if I were to tell you the story of Godzilla backwards, it would be about a moonwalking dinosaur that rebuilds Japan. That may be a silly way of explaining it, but stories are often dismissed as academically rigorous because it depends on how and who is telling the story. Data on the other hand is undeniable (that is, if it is actually done correctly, a whole other debate…).

So we become comforted in data and rely on it to sway our positions. We have become oblivious to what this data means. Are policy arguments are now over a gain and loss of numbers. But mortality doesn’t simply mean that someone dies – it means that a person is removed from an ever-changing, organic infrastructure of family and community. A beam is removed from the foundation, and it weakens everything. It devastates people, families, and communities. But more importantly, it changes how those infrastructures operate. That cant be summed up in data. We have to find a way to show that, justly – because just like our data, we can’t present their stories in a biased way.

How have colleagues responded to your efforts? How has the larger scientific community responded when you told them about the movie?

Colleagues have responded with incredible support – indeed better than expected. I was actually appointed lecturer at Yale School of Public Health and an affiliate of Yale’s Global Health Leadership Institute in order to investigate how we can apply these same principals in other areas of global health – i.e. using visual media, creating a positively cathartic experience, ect – in short, The strength of research + the power of humanity = public health action. Colleagues there have picked up on and are excited about what I mentioned in the trailer – that ‘if we turn an epidemic into an emotion, we motivate change’. I honestly believe that, I wasnt just saying a phrase. I think it is awakening people to the reason we all are in public health in the first place – well, at least I hope so – I’m a little biased 🙂

Some of the children featured in the documentary

For those who are inspired by your movie to make their own documentaries, any advice or suggestions?

Many people think filmmaking was something I had done before, but quite the contrary – I had rarely even held a camera before. So it is definitely something that can be approached by anyone. I would first ask, though, if a documentary is what is needed. Take a good long look at the situation before determining what the best approach is. For mining, there were virtually no gaps in the research – we know this problem is happening, we know what is causing it, and we know how to stop it. In this case, educating civil society to place accountability was the best option (well, in my opinion anyway!).

Other advice? Just keep going. No matter what. I’ve been rejected and turned down countless times, travelled down endless dead ends, and failed much more than I have succeeded. I’m currently in the process of failing at the moment. But my favorite quote is, “I force a smile, knowing my ambition far exceeded my talent.”

And what’s next? Have you got any new projects in the pipeline?

I am currently a lecturer at Yale University where I am designing a course that will integrate sensory engagement (film, artistry) with academic discourse. I am also starting the “Visual Epidemiology Project,” which will aim to produce future academically valid documentaries on other global health issues.

I get pissed when research ignores the very population that they are researching. I know of a rural African community where there are lines of houses with chalk marks covering the walls of their homes – each mark indicates to other researchers that the house has been surveyed for a given epidemiological study. Over the years, you just see houses covered in chalk lines. But you see no improvement. I’m looking into that…. First things first though!

Thanks to Jonathan for his time in making this interview a reality. If you would like to support the movie, please consider donating to the Kickstarter campaign. Thanks again to Jonathan for his time.

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