Awaken the Dragon | Q&A: Liz Oakley Speaks to Eugephemisms

Liz Oakley - Awaken the Dragon

Liz Oakley is the filmmaker of Awaken the Dragon, an award-winning film about dragon boat and cancer survival.

Ms. Oakley shared with us how she started as a documentary filmmaker, her ongoing screening campaign of “Awaken the Dragon” and her team’s endeavour to make the film available in cancer centres across America.

To date, this is probably our most relevant interview as this does not only feature an award-winning documentary filmmaker, but also the film’s most significant achievement—the continuing course of enriching the lives of many cancer survivors all around the world.

Q: When did you start to make films? What was your first project and could you tell us something about it?

A: I was a rather reluctant filmmaker. In 1995, I was a former television news producer now working in production writing and producing short form videos for corporations, higher educational institutions, and non-profits. I had no intention of becoming a documentary filmmaker. But that all changed the day I went to get a haircut from a woman named Joanna Katz. At this point I’m going to refer you to a Q&A on the Sentencing the Victim website that answers just this question.

Here’s a short synopsis on the film:
On June 17, 1988, Joanna Katz’s life was changed forever. That night, she and another woman were abducted at gunpoint, taken to an abandoned house in Charleston, South Carolina, and brutally raped, beaten and tortured by five men for more than five hours. SENTENCING THE VICTIM is the story of how a blood soaked 19-year-old was able to walk away from her attackers, save her friend from certain death and continue fighting for the convictions of her assailants—and for the rights of crime victims everywhere.

Sentencing the Victim aired on PBS’s Emmy-Award Winning series Independent Lens and garnered the highest ratings of the season. The film went on to screen at a special session at the Dept. of Justice and at conferences around the nation. The film was also the inspiration for a change in South Carolina Law. S.935

Q: As an artist, what stimulated you into taking the path of filmmaking?

A: It was never about being a filmmaker. It was always about telling a story. Or rather… telling Joanna’s story. However, once I truly understood the true power of the medium I realized I had a voice that could help others.

Q: How did you come up with the concept of “Awaken the Dragon?”

A: After the success of Sentencing the Victim I was looking for the subject of my next film. I knew it had to be visually, intellectually and emotionally captivating… but it also had to be a story that could change the lives of others for the better. I met Dr. Cindy Carter through mutual friends and she mentioned a program she was working on… something about Chinese boats and cancer survivors. Well, that certainly got my attention. One day I was invited down to the dock to see the program for myself and meet some of the people involved. The first person I met was Margaret Logan. She immediately launched into her story…cancer…depression…not an athlete…started paddling…how it changed her life. She spoke fast and furious but it was more than the words. It was the way she spoke about her cancer… very matter of fact. As I listened to Margaret talk about her personal transformation I began to grasp the potential of her story. It was enormous. I settled on my next project before she stopped talking.

Q: Did you ever get involved in the sport of Dragon Boat at some point? If yes, how did you find it?

A: I suppose it was inevitable. I’m a visual learner. After a few of years on the project, I had spent hundreds of hours around the sport, coaches and culture. I started paddling. Then I started coaching. I was on the drum for many of the races at the National Championships in 2010. Life imitating art. I now paddle Outrigger Canoe whenever my shoulder will let me.

Q: On a personal level, what inspired you to create such a significant documentary on Breast Cancer and Survivorship?

A: Actually, the Charleston team I follow in the film is an “all cancer” team. Men and women of all ages and all types of cancer. However, it was the breast cancer survivors who paved the trail… or should I say broke the waters for the survivor paddling movement.

People have asked if I am a survivor or if I have a family member who has cancer. The answer is no. I have, like so many people, lost very dear friends to the disease and I hate it. But, I made the film to share a story that anyone who has ever faced a challenge could relate to. I wanted a woman in Topeka who just heard those words “you have cancer”, or the man in Gainesville with his third recurrence to know that they are not alone.

I wanted them to know that they can get in a boat figuratively or literally and light that fire within themselves.

Q: Did you anticipate the enormous impact and reception of the film? If at all, how did it personally affect you and your entire team?

A: I’m glad to know you think it has had an enormous impact. I do know it has had a significant impact on many who have seen it. I’ve been really lucky to sit in the back of the theatre during film festivals and listen to the reactions. They are almost always verbal and that’s a lot of fun for me. I can also pick out a paddler from anywhere in the room. They start to rock in tempo with the race scenes. So did I.

Making the film had a huge impact on my life. I’ll refer you to my post on Awaken the Dragon website.

Q: Even though the film was released in 2011, it still continues to inspire millions of breast cancer survivors and supporters worldwide. How do you feel about this?

A: I would love to think it is inspiring millions. The truth is that in many ways the film is just reaching the viewing public. We premiered the film at a festival in LA at the end of 2011 and spent the next year and a half screening the film at film festivals in the US, Canada and Belgium. It aired on the ESPN of Brazil in 2013/14 but has not aired in the United States. We signed with a distributor and the film is now available online or via DVD sales at You can watch it for free online if you have Amazon Prime! Unfortunately, this is a fairly common time frame for an independent film.

I’m inspired by survivors everyday.

Q: Do you have any Breast Cancer Awareness programs that you’re actively involved with at the moment?

A: Not directly, although after sponsoring a screening in Oklahoma City the Komen group started a Paddle for the Cure event! I continue to stay connected to what’s going on with Dragon Boat Charleston. And, while they are an all-cancer group they do have a breast cancer team, Paddles and Pearls, that recently won the national championship and they are headed to the Club Crew World Championships in Adelaide, Australia in 2016. Really inspiring to see how far they have come…how hard they have worked!

I do continue to work with the Awaken the Dragon screening campaign and we are exploring opportunities to make the film available in cancer centres across the nation.

Q: What’s the best advice you can give to aspiring Documentary filmmakers?

A: Be persistent. Never accept no. Bottom line… this is a very difficult business. More often than not, a documentary filmmaker is shooting, editing, promoting and doing his/her own fundraising. That’s a lot of hats to wear but if you are passionate and have a vision, you can make it all happen.

Q: What’s coming next for Liz Oakley Productions?

A: When I did the first film I thought we would shoot for a year or so and then edit. We shot for 6 and edited for half a year. I said, I’ll never do that again. So when I started Awaken the Dragon I said, I really will shoot for a year and edit for a year. I shot for 6+ years and edited for 2 years. I’m afraid if I start another film I’ll be on social security before it’s finished. Actually, in both cases the length of the shoot created a much richer and much more powerful film. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Having said that… I’m taking a break from feature length films and concentrating on my production business and the Awaken the Dragon Community Screening Campaign.

Q: What are your thoughts on the current state of the disease in terms of awareness? Do you think is has improved over the years? For that matter, what more can be done to help spread awareness?

A: I think breast cancer awareness has grown exponentially. The survivors are speaking out and asking for more and people are listening. And, it’s not just about what they are doing for breast cancer. The efforts of groups like Susan G. Komen are driving the science and those findings may in turn help cancer researchers across the spectrum of the disease.

I think the area where there is a lot of room for growth is in prevention. We now know that exercise can help reduce your risk of developing cancer or of having a recurrence. So, get in a dragon boat!

While this is our way of helping raise awareness on Breast Cancer, we would like to close the Breast Cancer Awareness Month by thanking and honouring Liz, as well as the many others who, in one way or another, empower us to awaken our dragon within.

Photo Credit: Liz Oakley Productions

Why should Dragon Boaters care about Breast Cancer?

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Why is dragon boat often identified with this cancer type? Why should we dragon boaters observe this awareness month and why must we end the apathy?

Knowing the Numbers

According to American Cancer Society, “There is an estimated 1,676,600 new breast cancer cases among women worldwide in 2012. Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women in both developed and developing countries.” [Cancer.org¹]

“Breast cancer is about 100 times less common among men than among women. For men, the lifetime risk of getting breast cancer is about 1 in 1,000. Breast cancer in men in the United States for 2015 are: About 2,350 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed; About 440 men will die from breast cancer.” [Cancer.org²]

World Health Organization reports: “Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for 8.2 million deaths in 2012. The most common causes of cancer death are cancers of: lung (1.59 million deaths); liver (745,000 deaths); stomach (723,000 deaths); colorectal (694,000 deaths); breast (521,000 deaths); oesophageal cancer (400,000 deaths).” [World Health Organization³]

Awaken the Dragon

Birth of Breast Cancer Paddling Movement

It started in 1996 when a Sports Medicine Physician, Dr Donald McKenzie, from the University of British Columbia in Canada discovered that by following a special exercise and training program, women could avoid lymphedema and enjoy active, full lives. The 3-month dragon boat training program was carefully monitored by a sports medicine physician, a physiotherapist and a nurse. Dr McKenzie’s theory was proven correct. No new cases of lymphedema occurred and none of the existing cases became worse. [IBCPC⁴]

It was in that year that Abreast In A Boat was established. Its membership grew and involved more and more breast cancer survivors; and then later on inspired new teams to be formed. Its journey lives on until this day with a mission: “We paddle to raise breast cancer awareness and to demonstrate that women living with breast cancer can lead full and active lives.”

Inclusivity and Participation

The International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission or IBCPC holds a seat in the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) Commission Chair under Protocol, Culture and Heritage Commission (PC&HC). IBCPC governs the BCS Participatory Festivals and the Combined Racers Division in the Club Crew World Championships (CCWC). This division is open for entry for Breast Cancer Survivors Crew (BCS), All Cancer Survivors Crew (ACS), and Paradragons/Adaptive Paddlers Crew (APC).

It is such a comfort and joy to know that these breast cancer survivors are enjoying the sport of dragon boat and while they promote fitness and health benefits of the sport, they also relay a beautiful message of hope for recovery to those who are currently fighting the disease and those who may have just been diagnosed. IBCPC now has over 150 member teams from all over the world with most teams from Canada, United States, Australia, New Zealand, Italy and the United Kingdom.

IBCPC Participatory Dragon Boat Festival

The International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission Participatory Dragon Boat Festival or IBCPC PDBF is being held every three or four years. The first race took place in Vancouver, Canada (2005). The succeeding venues were: Caloundra, Australia (2007), Peterborough, Canada (2010), and Sarasota, Florida, United States (2014). The next event will be held in Florence, Italy. It is scheduled to happen between June and September in 2018.

Awaken the Dragon Sunset

Remembering and Honouring

In our quest to help campaign on the awareness of the disease, we’d also like to embolden everyone, survivors and supporters, to join or support any breast cancer dragon boat team in your area. Let us help one another in promulgating awareness, early detection, prevention as well as the treatment of breast cancer.

This October, as we go to our team practices or for competitions, let us remember our dearest friends, family members and teammates who’ve lost their battle against the disease. It would be good to have a brief moment of silence in the boat and rekindle those days when they were still paddling with us.

To all dragon boaters, please have yourselves checked and encourage everyone to do the same. Yes, this disease is more common to women, yet men can develop breast cancer, too. We are in this battle together.

Are you ready.. Attention! GO GET SCREENED!


¹ “10 Must-Know 2015 Global Cancer Facts.” American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society, Inc., 4th February 2015. Web. 28th September 2015.
² “Cancer.” Media Centre. World Health Organization, February 2015. Web. 28th September 2015.
³ “Breast Cancer in Men” Learn About Cancer. American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society, Inc., 26th February 2015. Web. 30 September 2015.
⁴ “History of BCS Dragon Boat Paddling” The Origins of Breast Cancer Paddling. International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission, 2008. Web. 28 September 2015.

*Photos used with permission from Liz Oakley, Filmmaker of the Award-winning Documentary, “Awaken the Dragon.” Are you a survivor or do you love someone who is? Share your story of survivorship or of dragon boating HERE.