Ohio-based filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s 3-hour and 45-minute documentary A Lion in the House follows five families with economically and racially diverse backgrounds over six years during their fights against childhood cancer. The filmmakers (Reichert started New Day Films in 1971 and both are longtime members of AIVF) recount the fascinating process of making the film, as well as the terrible and ironic twist that occurred as soon as they arrived at Sundance.
JULIA: In early 1997, my partner Steve got a phone call from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital’s head oncologist. They were looking for someone to make a documentary
about what families go through when their kid has cancer. They had seen Steve’s film Personal Belongings, and they knew we were locals. What they didn’t know was that my own 17-year-old daughter had just finished her treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It was a year of hell, and our initial thoughts about going back into that world were negative. But after about 15 minutes, we realized it was an amazing opportunity to help end the isolation of people fighting cancer. I would never have considered taking on this film if I had not gone through the experience with my own child.
STEVEN: We started shooting with just one digital video camera, a Sony VX-1000, and called friends to see if we could borrow other equipment. Little by little we fumbled into a professional setup—including one radio mic and a shotgun mic on a boom pole. The boom was crucial because often in hospital meetings many people are speaking from different places in a room, and there’s no time to tiptoe over to them. We quickly learned how to pivot the shotgun mic quickly so it was aimed in the right direction, and the boom could then be eased closer to that person. We were always a two-person crew, and in the early days of filming we argued a lot about how to do this work. It was actually kind of bumpy.
JULIA: We had different ideas about how we should act as filmmakers in the room. I thought we shouldn’t be interacting a lot, and Steven thought we should—that we should be like normal people except we would have cameras and be shooting.
STEVEN: I know Fred Wiseman would disapprove, but I just felt we had to be as real and decent and engaging as we could be. Living in hospital time is like running underwater, and these families didn’t need more silence in their lives. Also, I was always hyper self-conscious about overstaying our welcome, and I felt like Julia always wanted to stay way longer than people wanted us there. And you know, in Ohio, where people are generous and polite, they wouldn’t tell us to leave.
JULIA: Despite these differences, it was always the most compelling thing in our lives. We didn’t want to be anywhere else. Yet it was something we couldn’t really describe to our friends and family; we only shared it with the patients’ families, the nurses, docs, and each other. That’s one reason why this film really brought us closer.
STEVEN: Someone once asked me if I had ice water in my veins to film some of the stuff we filmed. That comment hurt because I believe an essential part of being a true documentarian is that you film hard stuff and you let yourself feel it, keeping your humanity open to the pain of the situation you are filming. This isn’t easy, and it can damage you if you’re not careful.
We filmed the moment when Tim and Marietha are told that Tim’s cancer had come back. As usual the camera was very close to Tim (our backs were snug against the wall of the small hospital room). Tim started crying. He was only two feet away, and I was holding a lens on him. A voice in my head said, “Put that damn camera down, you asshole, and comfort him.” But I didn’t put the camera down, and Julia did not put the boom pole down.
We looked at this amazing young man and offered what sympathy we could with our eyes, with brief words. But we kept shooting.
I felt so ashamed of myself afterwards. We told ourselves we weren’t obliged to use that footage or we could trim it way down. Yeah, right. Here was a deeply powerful scene, and we were trying to kid ourselves into thinking we wouldn’t use it.
A few years later, I saw Christian Frei’s great documentary War Photographer, about
photojournalist James Nachtwey who has shot photos in some of the most difficult circumstances on earth, where people are suffering profoundly. Nachtwey expressed hope that his photos would make a difference, and yet, to my surprise, he also talked about the shame he felt at times.
Hearing this made a huge difference to me: Shame is a necessary check in the process of doing ethical work. The shame should be there—as a measure of your conscience.
JULIA: Shame never entered into my mind. Our primary reason to be there was not as caregivers, not as friends, though we were those somewhat. We were there to witness, to document, and then to take on the responsibility of sharing that with the world. That meant keeping shooting unless the families asked us to stop.
To me, if we put the camera down at hard times, we would not be doing our job.
It took a while to figure this out, that we were privileged to witness some extraordinary human interactions. And witnessing for us meant honestly documenting all the events and all the perspectives that were part of the things we were observing.
STEVEN: Our kick-ass editing team helped us turn the 525 hours of raw footage into a watchable first cut, which was something like 28 hours long. Then senior editors Kevin Jones and Jaime Meyers were joined by veteran editors Mary Lampson (Harlan County, U.S.A., Rain in a Dry Land) and my former partner Jim Klein (Seeing Red, Scout’s Honor). We also had great consulting editors, like Robb Moss, Yvonne Welbon, Austin Allen, Michelle Davis, and Nathaniel Dorsky, who wisely told us: “You must switch your allegiance from your material to the film.”
JULIA: All hell broke loose when we got the news from Sundance. We couldn’t believe our good fortune. Weeks earlier, we had joined the annual, national ritual of anxious waiting that thousands of filmmakers do every year. It’s a surreal kind of process—we all send in our films and then try not to obsess about it. But one day Shari Frilot called us and told us they were showing the film in the documentary competition.
STEVEN: It was crazy. They had never shown a film that long in competition. From the end of November through early January, our lives were not our own. Julia was tired all the time and feeling a ton of pain in her upper back, but when you’re working almost 20 hours a day and you haven’t had a day off in months, of course you’re tired and aching all the time. I kick myself now that I didn’t see the signs that Julia was getting sick—that it wasn’t just exhaustion.
JULIA: In early January, I saw my doctor and got a chest X-ray. A few days later, on
Friday the 13th as it turns out, my doc called and said, “There’s something on the X-ray, we have to do a CAT scan.”
STEVEN: The CAT scan showed a mass in Julia’s chest. Our doc said it might be benign, it might be malignant; we have to do a biopsy. This is TWO DAYS before we leave for Sundance.
JULIA: That day was also the tenth anniversary of my daughter Lela’s cancer diagnosis. I got the biopsy, and we packed for Sundance.
When we got off the plane in Salt Lake City, I turned my phone back on and there was a message to call the doctor for the results. And there at the gate, standing next to the rows of bucket seats, with everyone pulling their roller bags past us, I heard
that I had cancer—a large mass of lymphoma.
First reaction was denial. ALL five families were on their way to Sundance. None had ever been to a film festival; some had never been on an airplane. They had only seen the unfinished film in their own homes. We decided to wait until after the film had screened—to a standing ovation— to tell these families our news.
STEVEN: We got home from Sundance on Sunday, January 22. We were admitted to the James Cancer Hospital the next day and did not leave for the next three weeks. We soon found out Julia had an exceptionally rare form of cancer for which there was no standard protocol. The survival rate was 18 percent.
What happened next was just about the most scary and intense thing I’ve ever been through. With the clock ticking and the tumor growing in Julia’s chest, we had to choose a course of treatment, knowing that whatever treatment we chose would ultimately be a leap of faith, a gamble. We were told repeatedly that the first treatment you use matters most—that you don’t want to pick the wrong weapon, as it were, and then be
one down in the fight.
JULIA: Working in documentary trains you as a researcher, interviewer, note-taker, as a
judge of divergent viewpoints and as a decision-maker. These skills came in handy. Also, the families of Lion were great support and mentors. The years we spent with them made me less afraid and had taught us all so much about being proactive, assertive, and clear. Even though I helped my own daughter fight cancer, it’s
different when it’s you.
STEVEN: About a month later, after round two of chemo, Julia went in for a series of scans, which would determine if and how well the treatment was working. The scans showed her tumors had shrunk dramatically, that she was exceeding expectations. She endured the rest of her chemo rounds and finished two weeks before the national PBS broadcast of the movie.
Lion won the Audience Award at Hot Docs, a Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and shared the prize for Best Documentary at the 2006 Nashville Film Festival. In June, it was broadcast as a two-part national, primetime special on PBS’s “Independent Lens” series. More information at www.lioninthehouse.com. A companion book will also be released with the film.
More info about the book at www.orangefrazer.com.