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Jan. 25, 2013

Film that nourishes the soul


In 2008, documentary filmmaker Michael Oved Dayan traveled to the remote village of Yushu in Tibet to chronicle the humanitarian efforts of a Canadian doctor. The result, High Plains Doctor: Healing on the Tibetan Plateau, aired on CBC’s documentary channel and has its U.S. première at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival this week, where it is in competition, nominated in the social justice category.

High Plains Doctor features Dr. Isaac Sobol and his volunteer medical team as they set up their 10th annual primary-care clinic. During the month-long mission, the team treated 1,500 people, many of them suffering extreme complications from a lack of access to adequate care in the region. The film parallels the struggles of indigenous people in Tibet and in Canada in the face of modernization, revealing the consequences to human health of marginalization, environmental degradation and economic devastation.

At the time of filming, Sobol was the chief medical officer in Nunavut. Previously, he had worked as a physician in a northern Saskatchewan Métis community, served as the Nisga’a Valley Health Board medical health officer in northern British Columbia, and was director of the division of aboriginal people’s health at the University of British Columbia Medical School.

Filmmaking was not Dayan’s initial path. “I was studying communications at McGill and doing a PhD, which was a really long process, and I found I wasn’t having a creative outlet,” he told the Independent. “Since I was a kid, I always loved filming and videotaping family events and my friends, life around me. I went back to my filmmaking as a way to tap into my creative element.”

It was the Errol Morris film Fast, Cheap and Out of Control that inspired him to pursue filmmaking as that outlet.

“This film, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, is about people who are really inspired, people who throw themselves into their work. There’s a creativity and a sort of a soul-nourishment that they get out of it. And I thought, I’m going to make a film about some people like that. I do low-budget work, and so I have to work with what’s possible within a low budget, so working with people that I know can be a good starting point.”

His first effort, Glimpses of Heaven, “was partly a way for me to explore my own creativity through tapping into my creative outlet ... but also to explore and to learn” from the film’s subjects, he said. “I was asking really genuine ... questions that were vital to where I was in life at the time, asking people who have been there and they’ve all struggled … the film goes deeper into questions of how they’ve dealt with trauma but, for me, I wanted to understand: how can I get back some creativity in my life? These three people really showed me the way.”

It was through screening Glimpses of Heaven that Dayan happened upon the idea for High Plains Doctor. “My friend, Roman Elinson, had gone with Isaac to Tibet to do a clinic and he came back with amazing stories about the experience of healing these people, about the experience of taking massive quantities of medical supplies and drugs into China, into Tibet. It sounded like a great story was in there.

“He told me about Isaac, what a character he is. And also, [Elinson’s] a brilliant photographer and he really deserves a lot of credit for how this film came about. I saw his photos and I was just blown away … I thought this place would make a great film. It’s the land, it’s the people, it’s the way they dress and present themselves, and then they’ve got rituals that are really colorful.”

It turned out that Sobol’s personal story was as engaging as was his record of public service. Sobol “is a well-established leader in the Canadian medical community,” Dayan wrote of his subject in the film’s promotional materials, “yet he struggles with a lifelong theme of feeling excluded. Attempting to find his place in the world, Isaac has undergone many transformations and had numerous labels apply: singer/songwriter (his songs are featured in the film), safari park wild animal caretaker, lighthouse attendant, park ranger, rock band manager, recording studio office manager, advertising copywriter, physician, beatnik, comedian, sage and artist. Struggling with feeling like a misfit, Isaac’s journey of healing has certainly been an inward one; his pain pivots him to heal.”

In commentary that Dayan wrote for the film, he described his first encounters with Sobol. “I didn’t quite know what to expect when I first went to meet Isaac…. Over the telephone I found him to be charismatic, humorous and dynamic. Getting to know Isaac, I have become familiar with a man of paradox. Isaac, while making the most serious medical decisions – whether to expend resources to save the life of a woman in his examining room or to save those resources for many others with less complicated issues, for example – is capable of smiling and celebrating the moments of joy in his life. In the course of shooting, I continued to witness this: laughing, telling jokes, smiling and not taking life too seriously, while leading discussions about actual life and death scenarios, finessing a conversation with a likely operative of the communist government, calming a chaotic crowd outside the clinic, pressing wayward surgeons to do the right thing and playing with children who are waiting for their sick parents to be examined. In getting to know Isaac, I encountered a man short in height, yet towering in character.”

It is this compelling paradox that drove the film and is an example of what inspires Dayan’s production company, Helliwell Pictures.

“I think, in part, [I focus on] how to live with the realities of life, that it’s not always a Hollywood story. We all have times when we’re suffering and feeling real pain,” he explained. “In both films, these people are very candid about what they’ve suffered through. It’s by learning about their suffering and how they’ve learned to cope that you see the triumph. That is the triumph, how they’ve gotten past their suffering to find a way to honor their experience. I’ve thought about that. Why is it that people open up and really tell intimate, personal stories? I think it’s connected with the thing that you’re talking about, these people see their life stories as connected to big issues because they all have a spirit of ‘generativity.’ They all want to see their life stories help others and they believe that by informing others about their experience, these other people can learn and avoid some of the pitfalls that they had in the past.”

He continued, “I see Isaac’s story [as] parallel in the way that he interprets the story of the Tibetan and the First Nation people he worked with in Canada.... Even though he’s a leading medical physician and public health expert, he’s felt marginalized. At the same time, he’s treating people and caring for people who are marginalized. I really wanted to highlight that relationship and the similar trajectory…. I also think, one of the things that is special about [my subjects] is that they are giving themselves to something larger than themselves. The fundamental choice that people can make is to focus on their own desires or to focus on giving and helping others.”

The theme of choice is integral. “None of us can govern our context, we’re in the situation we’re in, but we can choose how we’re going to respond to it,” Dayan said. “The challenge for traditional people is to find a way to adapt to the changing environment, modernization, having to relocate their homes and find new ways to work and get educated into new ways to work and find new ways to heal themselves, because the environmental changes are killing the plants they used to use.

“I try to highlight the public health mix,” he added. “As a public health officer, Isaac has an ambulatory clinic there and he’s treating people who wait in line a long time to see him, but he’s also thinking about the context, what’s going on. People are not empowered…. They have no mechanism [for coping].”

Today, Sobol is living in Vancouver as acting director of public health for B.C. and Yukon First Nation communities. Unfortunately, after a decade of providing medical care, the Yushu missions have stopped.

“In 2010, there was a [7.1] earthquake that destroyed over 80 percent of the buildings,” Dayan explained. “The ones that weren’t destroyed, I don’t know how structurally sound they are, and it killed like two-thirds of the people who were living there. I don’t know exactly what the figure is … there is a discrepancy between different sources … but let’s just say it was devastating. I’ve heard there was talk about relocating the town. I don’t know what’s going to happen with it. I’ve spoken with Isaac many times about it. He has no idea. He hasn’t been able to get any information.”

The timing of Dayan’s visit to Yushu couldn’t have been more fortuitous – his film is a valuable document of a village that is no more.

“I brought a fairly good high-definition camera. It was, at the time, the concept of high-definition was just on the forefront, and my hunch is that this film contains, I can safely say, some of the only high-definition footage of Yushu before it was destroyed.”

Vancouver-based Dayan teaches film at the University of the Fraser Valley, but he is taking time off to pursue another project that will be keeping him busy for the foreseeable future. He and his wife Lisa have just had a baby girl, Zava Annie. The parallels between “creating a film and a person” are not lost on the new father. “My films are about creative individuals with the courage and self-confidence needed to overcome fear and doubt in order to make positive contributions to others,” he said. “I hope to teach my daughter courage and self-confidence coupled with social interest and a caring nature.”