November 3, 2014

A New Short Film Series Sparks Increased Awareness of Immigrant Health Issues

Dae Jae Kim is calm as he recounts his visit to the doctor’s office. “For me, when the doctor said I have cirrhosis. I was cool,” he says. “I pretended to be cool.” He kept pretending when he was told he had a risk of stomach cancer. But when the doctor informed him he might only have a year left to live, he couldn’t pretend anymore.

To reduce stress and improve his chances, Kim was told, “No drinking. No smoking. No working.” Yet, as the primary provider for his family, the financial and social hardship of his new regimen made stress-free living nearly impossible. In addition, as a Korean immigrant, Kim faced serious communication barriers with doctors and struggled to navigate complex healthcare legalese. His life was in chaos.

Kim survived the ordeal with the support of his family, but his story remains a stark example of why health care in the United States needs to change.

In an effort to bring to light the under-studied challenges faced by immigrants, the USC Immigrant Health Initiative (iHi) and the School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) have produced a short, three-part documentary that follows the stories of three Los Angeles-based immigrant families. The films are currently being shown in classrooms throughout the University and the Keck School of Medicine.

Professor Doe Mayer, Mary Pickford Chair and Executive Producer of the series, felt it would be useful to focus on stories that would help faculty in many disciplines convey to students the range of health problems that immigrants face. Mayer, a longtime member of the iHi team, brought in her colleague Lisa Leeman as producer. Leeman, a Production Division Adjunct with years of experience making feature documentaries, welcomed the challenge of creating short films that filled specific academic and social needs.

Ruben Contreras and Jin Yoo-Kim on the set of A Son's Survival

Leeman enlisted recent MFA alums to use their newly minted filmmaking skills: directors Melanie D’Andrea, Lori Webster, and Jin Yoo-Kim; cinematographer Ruben Contreras; editor Daniel Bydlowski; and sound technicians Charles Leisenring and Reese Robinson.

The three short films, which follow the stories of Dae Jae Kim (A Son’s Survival), Yitaish Ayalneh (Home Away from Home), and Carmen Lopez (A Family’s Spirit), bring faces to the issues and show why these pressing concerns cannot be ignored. Ruben Contreras, a Production graduate who served as cinematographer on all three iHi films, stressed the significance of telling individual stories. “It’s important to show the human side of healthcare. In this project, we used statistics to guide the preproduction, but these documentaries tell a story of people, not just facts.”

“It’s important to feel and be with these families,” said Melanie D’Andrea, director of A Family’s Spirit, on the documentaries’ narrative style. As a first generation immigrant herself, she connected with the stories deeply. “I was interested in exploring how a bridge could be made between immigrants and American medicine,” says D’Andrea, who immigrated to the US from Venezuela when she was six years old. “It’s an honor to think that these pieces could be shown to future medical professionals in this country. These films could spark dialogue of how to transcend cultural lines.”

An individual’s cultural history affects health more profoundly than many realize. In acclimating to a new culture, immigrants’ lives are fundamentally changed. Not only are they required to learn a foreign language, they must adapt to everything from new social customs to a whole host of unfamiliar foods. The films’ editor, Daniel Bydlowski, was struck by the strength of habits born from a person’s cultural background. “It’s difficult for many people to give up their lifestyles, even when it can devastate their lives. Families need to be aware of that in order to help their loved ones survive. For example, in [A Family’s Spirit], although the family has a history of diabetes, it was hard for them to forgo sugar, not only because of taste but also because they lacked the time to prepare healthy food.”

Greater cultural awareness should be a goal of American public health policy, according to Jin Yoo Kim, director of A Son’s Survival. “So many people in the Korean-American community suffer silently not knowing how to navigate the US health care system, whether it is because they are recent immigrants, may not have the right type of insurance, or from language problems. Many feel limited in who they can see because of the language and cultural barriers.”

In advocating for the cause, Professor Doe Mayer underscored the importance of young filmmakers pointing their lenses toward social change. “Filmmaking here at USC isn’t just about Hollywood productions,” she said. “Change comes from the conversations that media engenders. We want our filmmakers to spark those conversations.”

Carmen Lopez in a still from A Family's Spirit

The team took this message to heart, crediting part of their success to their studies at USC, which included building trusting relationships with the subjects of their films. Director Melanie D’Andrea explained that she had to work on her relationship with the Lopez family, featured in A Family’s Spirit. “Without mutual trust I could not have found out the layers behind their plight with diabetes.” Lori Webster, director on Home Away from Home, shared similar sentiments, citing SCA’s documentary program as a key experience. “Our faculty encouraged us to ‘get out of the car’ – to observe and engage with our community. Through this project, I learned a great deal about Ethiopian culture and gained a greater appreciation for their unique way of life.”

Even though these films cover only a fraction of Los Angeles, the expanse of cultures they encompass show just how varied and unique the needs of immigrants can be, even within a small community. Understanding the issue of immigrant health in America is not simply about knowing the facts and figures, the films emphasize, it’s about redefining what it is to be American and empathizing with a broader range of experiences.

“There’s hesitation when folks encounter cultures different than their own,” said cinematographer Ruben Contreras. “It makes our interactions with each other stunted and unfulfilled. It’s as important for a healthcare professional as it is for any person living in the US today. I hope that these iHi documentaries, in some small way, help break the walls of hesitation between cultures.”

A Son's Survival


Home Away from Home

A Family's Spirit