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 amazon.com. 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