When ABC’s Bob Woodruff and his cameraman were badly injured by an IED in Iraq in January of 2006, it was the top story for days. We may not know any of the estimated 320,000 soldiers who’ve returned home with traumatic brain injuries (TBI), but we do remember the co-anchor of World News Tonight. To his credit, he and his family created the Bob Woodruff Foundation to advocate for and raise money for veterans with head injuries, and to educate the public. Longtime Brisbane documentary maker David L. Brown was at one of those benefits, a 22-mile traverse of Lake Tahoe on stand-up paddleboards. “I realized this is a very powerful and timely story, and I should really move forward full-tilt,” Brown recalls. Two years later, he has a 70-minute rough cut of Going the Distance.
That’s warp speed in the doc world, especially for an experienced filmmaker who always has several projects in various stages of development. “Of course, you don’t want to launch into a project in the middle of a recession if it’s not fundable,” Brown acknowledges. “Because there were so many organizations focused on the issue I thought the fundraising would be slightly easier. But I’ve been doing this gig long enough to know there are no slam-dunks in a recession. We’ve had a few generous folks come through and save the day and get us to the rough-cut stage. It may take a while [to raise the completion funds] but we have people who have expressed strong interest in helping us finish the film.”
Although there is a political as well as a social-issue aspect to Going the Distance, Brown emphasizes that he’s doing what he always does—foregrounding compelling characters who have interesting stories. In choosing the four people he would profile—only one of whom was injured in Iraq, incidentally—the filmmaker consciously aimed to make a film that would inspire people, a la his marvelous Surfing For Life (2001) and Of Wind and Waves: The Life of Woody Brown (2007).
“We tried to find stories that had hopeful and relatively successful recovery arcs,” Brown explains. “The other films I’d seen on TBI, such as HBO’s Coma, were incredibly depressing. I didn’t see the point of making a film that leaves the audience demoralized and hopeless. I feel social-change documentary should try to find some hope, if not create it out of thin air (laughs) and find stories that will have some positive impact on the audience. That’s not to say our subjects are representative of the entire community of TBI survivors. But all had their life changed forever, all had to reinvent themselves, to find motivation and determination to continue with their new self despite the challenges and lifelong impairments.”
The first TBI survivor who Brown interviewed was Jay Waller, now attending grad school in Hartford, Connecticut, some six years after he was brutally beaten in a road-rage incident while vacationing in Hawaii. The filmmaker met Jason Poole, a Marine injured by a roadside bomb, in a VA hospital in Palo Alto. He also met Kristin Collins, a Redwood City nurse recovering from a traumatic brain injury, at a VA hospital. Going the Distance also introduces us to six-year-old Ian McFarland, a Carlsbad surfer who suffered a head injury in the car accident that took both of his parents' lives.
“Bob Woodruff plays a somewhat symbolic role as the poster person for TBI,” Brown relates. “He decided his story had been so thoroughly told that we should make him a secondary character.”
It’s a bit misleading to mention just these names, as the people who make up their support networks play a key role in the film.
“The journey [of recovery] is very much a family journey, so we feature family prominently,” Brown says. “It takes a village to heal a traumatic brain injury, and we highlight that through portraits of the family as well as the therapists involved. There are two keys: Loving family and friends, and a lot of very good therapy. Not everybody has both. A lot of people have neither.”
The most recent tally of the cost of TBI injuries and treatment in the U.S. is $61 billion a year, Brown reports. A good chunk of that can be attributed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the leading causes of TBI are auto accidents, falls and sports accidents. For his part, however, Brown sees Going the Distance as speaking not just to those dealing with TBI, but the 50 million Americans who have some connection to the disabled community.
Brown, who teaches documentary production classes at City College of San Francisco and SFFS and digital filmmaking at UC Berkeley Extension, is also in the middle of a pair of music-themed docs. Keeper of the Beat (kobmovie.com) spotlights the august jazz drummer Barbara Borden, while Third Rock follows a pre-teen rock band of the same name whose drummer, Lotus, is Borden’s goddaughter and protégé. His primary focus, though, is shepherding Going the Distance across the finish line.
“It’s just another case of privileged access to people’s life stories that makes me so glad and fortunate to be a documentary filmmaker,” Brown effuses. “I’m very glad for these people who trust me to tell their stories. The nurse is looking for jobs and it could be a problem when PBS airs this film and shows her as a TBI survivor. It takes courage for them to tell their stories for a film that’s potentially going to be broadcast. It’s really a film about courage and determination, about love, about family and getting the therapy help you need.”
Brown expects to finish Going the Distance in 2011. For more info, visit goingthedistance.info.
Notes from the Underground
Scott Kirschenbaum and Boston-based producer Charlot Lucien are in Port-au-Prince working on A Soapbox in Haiti, a touring speaker series they are recording for various platforms, including an online video series and public exhibitions. More details are at asoapboxinhaiti.com … The de Young Museum hosts a free sneak preview of The Storm That Swept Mexico, Raymond Telles’ evocative two-hour saga of the history and legacy of the Mexican Revolution, with Telles on hand for a Q&A, Sunday, November 7 at 2 p.m. The doc airs next spring on PBS.… Keep an eye out for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ announcement, coming in mid-November, of the shortlist of feature documentaries in the running for the Oscar.
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