Student and professor collaborate for inspiring cancer documentary
4 October 2021
Masters student Irene Chapple worked with Professor Annie Goldson to tell the story of David Downs and others who have received CAR T-cell cancer therapy.
Masters student Irene Chapple knows a good story when she hears one.
The experienced journalist, producer and PR strategist has already worked for CNN London, the NZ Herald and TV3’s The Project, among others. But it was her desire to make documentaries that drew her back to university.
“I wanted to upskill myself in the film side of things, particularly post-production.”
She was attracted to an honours paper run by multi-award-winning documentary film-maker Professor Annie Goldson in Media, Film, and Television. As part of her coursework, Irene completed a short documentary To Laugh To Live, and the subject matter caught her teacher Annie’s eye. The film was about comedian, writer and businessman David Downs who, in 2017 aged 46, was diagnosed with advanced non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer. After 12 rounds of chemotherapy, he was told he had a year to live.
But then, David was given the chance to take part in a pioneering immunotherapy cancer treatment called CAR T-cell therapy, in Boston in the United States. A doctor had read the blogs David had written about his situation and contacted him.
Irene knew about David, who has a BSc from Auckland, because he lives in Devonport, the same suburb as her. She contacted him to see if he would take part in her documentary project.
“Friends had been talking to me about his miraculous survival story, so I approached him directly and just had a coffee with him. He’s a really kind person and was so willing to participate, even though it was a university project. The interview I did with him took hours.”
That might have been where it ended, with a great student doco about an incredible cancer survival story.
“Annie Goldson saw more in it. She was really interested in the science of CAR T-cell therapy and how it works. Also, David is such an incredible character, she could see a longer film.”
What happened next was a two-year project that began in 2019 and culminates in the feature-length documentary A Mild Touch of Cancer, named after David Downs’ book.
One version will screen on Prime TV on Tuesday 19 October and a longer version is part of the New Zealand International Film Festival now opening in Christchurch on 29 October. (See footnote.) It is also featuring in a New York City festival, Imagine Science, and has been picked up for global distribution.
While David is a central character, there are others whose journeys we follow right through, including their treatment with CAR T-cell therapy, and we needed to be with them for the outcome.
A Mild Touch of Cancer is written, produced and directed by Annie through her company Occasional Productions, and co-produced by Irene. It had NZ On Air and Sky NZ support, and received a grant from the NZ Film Commission.
“It has been a long production process, but in many ways that time was required,” says Irene.
“While David is a central character, there are others whose journeys we follow right through, including their treatment with CAR T-cell therapy, and we needed to be with them for the outcome. In a way, the film is like a longitudinal study.
“Annie drove the film and it was great to work alongside her as producer in New Zealand. She travelled to the US, to Pfizer in New York and to Boston, to film David’s return for his two-year scan after the therapy. We were lucky with the timing because it was early 2020, and it couldn’t have happened if it had been later in the year.”
That footage enabled the film to include the pronouncement by the cancer specialist that David was cured. Says Annie: “David was then determined to help others who didn’t have his ability to connect to the global science community. He found out that the Malaghan Institute in Wellington was running its own trials in CAR-T.
“David is phenomenal helping others with cancer,” says Annie. “He helps with advice, counselling, offers financial support when needed, and fundraising for Malaghan. His determination also gave us a way of structuring the film.
"Using David’s connections, we could follow the story of others undertaking treatment, in real time. None of us, including them, knew what their health outcomes would be while we were filming.”
Using David’s connections, we could follow the story of others undertaking treatment, in real time. None of us, including them, knew what their health outcomes would be while we were filming.
Other stories of survival
Then in 2020, Irene made another documentary, debuting as director. The Eruption: Stories of Survival was about the deadly Whakaari White Island eruption in December 2019 and told the story of survivors and their families, first responders and medical staff and the family of one guide who didn’t survive. Irene was freelancing at The Project when Whakaari happened.
“It’s a compelling story, in terms of Mother Nature and our relationship with her. I immediately thought it would make a powerful film. I was not long out of Annie’s course and it seemed an obvious opportunity to direct a feature about it.”
She put forward the proposal to TV3 who supported it. And alongside her name in the credits of that documentary, which you can see on 3 Now (on demand), is Annie Goldson.
“I triggered the process of starting the feature and asked Annie to produce it with me and happily she said yes. We got other crew on board, and met with key people in Whakatane, including the leadership of Ngāti Awa. It was important to gain people’s trust – many were very vulnerable – and I’m proud of how we worked with them.
“We were straight up and absolutely held to our word of doing what we said we would do. I believe we took care of people, and that was particularly important to us, especially with the two survivors we featured, Jake Milbank and Kelsey Waghorn.”
Right now, Irene is juggling several projects – PR campaigns, media strategy and production work – with being the sole parent of a young daughter.
“My daughter is part of the reason I did Annie’s course – I really wanted to upskill professionally so I could broaden my career, especially in the field of documentary,” she says. “When I came back to New Zealand after eight years in London and a job I loved, I knew I needed to create a professional future that was satisfying, but also flexible.”
The next part of that plan is to get back into her masters. “My masters has been on hold … I had filming sorted for another project for it, but then lockdown happened again. It’s a challenge, but I’ll get there.”
A Mild Touch of Cancer is at Whānau Mārama: the New Zealand International Film Festival.
The festivals runs 29 October to 14 November. It opens in Christchurch on October 29, Wellington on November 4 and Dunedin on November 5, followed by nine regional centres.
(The Auckland leg of the festival has been cancelled due to Covid-19 alert levels.)
This story first appeared in October 2021 UniNews.