Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Empathy and Wow!

Paco Rodriguez, a 24-year-old boxer, died on November 22, 2009, from injuries sustained in a Philadelphia ring. Shortly thereafter, his heart, lungs, kidneys, pancreas and liver were transplanted to five recipients. The New York Times reported Rodriguez’ organ donations in December.
In February 2010, E:60 requested permission from Gift of Life, a Philadelphia-based group that arranged the organ donations, to report on four of the recipients. (The fifth was an “uncle” of Rodriguez, who got a kidney) Permission was granted in July.
Producers Vin Cannamela and Frank Saraceno began the work. Cannamela went to Philadelphia to meet with the recipients, whose names were not yet public. It was a task to which Cannamela was sensitive. He was born with a congenital heart condition and underwent open-heart surgery when he was six.
“To some small degree I had empathy for what these people had been going through,” Cannamela said. “But I also felt sympathy for what they dealt with. I did not equate my situation with theirs.
“Mine was a condition that could be repaired – my life wasn’t in danger. Surgery certainly improved my life, but it wasn’t a thing where I would have died.”
Saraceno went to Chicago to meet with Rodriguez’ family: his widow Sonia; infant daughter Ginette, brother Alex, mother Maria and father Evaristo. By that time Sonia had exchanged letters with the four recipients – all wanted to meet with her.
The meeting, underwritten by E:60, was arranged for December 1 in Chicago, in front of E:60 cameras. One recipient balked, and then consented.
Cannamela and Saraceno set up the meeting at the offices of Gift of Hope, an organ-donation group in suburban Chicago. They wanted it to be tasteful, genuine and powerful.
“How could we shoot this and have it be authentic?” Saraceno asked himself.
“You only have one shot at this moment, and if something goes wrong... a number of things could go wrong...a mike cuts out...a wrong button...everything has to be letter perfect.”
A plan took shape. They decided to limit the initial meeting – too many faces could confuse viewers. The widow, daughter, brother, and mother were chosen to represent the family. The mother was chosen because of her desire to meet the heart recipient. Alex, the oldest brother, was chosen to help translate the mother, whose primary language is Spanish.
Another question: should the recipients meet the family one-by-one or as a unit?
The four recipients – Alexis Sloan (heart), Ashley Owens (lungs), Meghan Kingsley (liver), and Vicky Davis (kidney, pancreas), had dined together the night before, and had established a rapport, a “sisterhood”, as Saraceno called it. The producers decided they should meet the family as a unit.
Four cameras were deployed. The lead shooter, Mike Bollacke, was riveted on the widow, Sonia. A second camera was a “catch-all” for wide shots. A third camera shot at 60 frames per second, providing a slo-mo option. Saraceno had the fourth camera – a mini-cam - with the freedom to roam and fill in the gaps.
Eight microphones were wired to the four family members and four recipients.
As the meeting drew nigh anxiety mounted. The producers worried that the meeting could produce awkward moments. They worried that the one reluctant recipient would back out or not emote. They worried about the equipment.
“I hope nothing happens,” Saraceno thought.
Finally it was time.
The recipients filed in, led by Vicky Davis, at 57 the eldest of the four. Davis hugged Sonia and Maria, the mother. Soon everybody hugged everybody, carried up on waves of emotion, awash in tears of joy.
Maria buried her head in the chest of Alexis, over the beating heart of her son. It was the money shot, unscripted, and captured by Saraceno’s mini-cam.
“It happened so quickly,” Saraceno recalled. “The guys were on the other side. I was able to swing around and get the shot they couldn’t get to.”
Then Sonia placed the hand of her 11-month-old daughter on the chest of Alexis. At that instant Cannamela felt vindicated.
“This is going to be good,” he told himself.
In time Cannamela sent in three more family members – father Evaristo, brother Tito, and “uncle”, Ramon, who received a kidney. Then he sent in the four guests of the recipients, who had accompanied them on the trip. Among the guests was Sharon Kingsley, the mother of the liver recipient, Meghan. Sharon hugged Maria and whispered in her ear.
Later, family and recipients lingered over a display of memorabilia from the boxing career of Paco Rodriguez, and chatted, while the cameras stayed on.
When it was over, and they had a moment alone, Cannamela and Saraceno took a deep breath and looked at one another.
The shoot had exceeded their hopes.
“As much as you think you might know what it’s like to be in that type of setting, I think we were just blown away,” recalled Cannamela.
“You can’t script that. You could try – we try to control as much as we can – but when these things happen that you couldn’t even dream of, and are so natural and organic and come from the heart – and that’s what our cameras are there to capture – that was amazing.
“And you are feeling for these people as you see this happen. You’ve got to stay as unemotional as you can but you can’t help but feel for these people.”
Said Saraceno: “It’s rare when you’re in the middle of a story when you have to check your emotions so you can think clearly. Watching it all come together was for me very powerful.”
Two months later, in edit, Cannamela and Saraceno experienced another – and unexpected - moment of wonder and triumph. When they queued up Sharon Kingsley’s hug of Maria, they heard what the mother of the recipient whispered to the mother of the donor:
“From one mother to another, nobody could understand it but yourself. But I thank you for the gift that you've given us, because without him, she wouldn't be alive, either.”
Again, the producers looked at one another.

(posted by Steve Marantz, April 27, 2011)

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