Director James Kicklighter's
Film Kicks Cancer's Ass
By Mende Smith
James Kicklighter's 25-minute Doc Film A Few Things About Cancer is a great story in every way. The film had its premiere at L.A.'s recent FirstGlance Film Festival where it picked up the prize for Best Short Documentary. One critic called the film 'a crescendo in positivity' and I could not have put it better. Kicklighter is always looking for a new story to tell, but he did not set out to shoot a documentary film about fighting cancer; his old college pal asked him to record his experience with Stage IV Burkitt's Lymphoma and the footage morphed into the well-liked short film of its own categorical success. I had a chat with James to see what inspires him to get behind the lens and the soak up the story behind the film.
"Caleb and I were fraternity brothers, we pledged together when we were in college and we had lost touch," Kicklighter says, "I hadn't heard from Caleb in five or six years. When it was announced on Facebook that he had cancer, I felt miserable. I saw that it was stage four and stage four is as bad as it gets. I instantly had all of these feelings of guilt and lost time, how the moments that bind our relationships together in life don't always keep us together forever."
Kicklighter reached out to him on Facebook offering his condolences and also asked if he needed help with anything? His friend messaged him back within five minutes saying yes, he wanted to video record his experience with the disease for friends and family to follow his journey wherever it might take him. Kicklighter accepted--and convinced his friend to let him make a documentary film out of the footage to help people to understand and get beyond cancer with a unique cinematic experience.
A Few Things About Cancer is not like any other short I have seen. Kicklighter avoided the all too common view of "I'm sick" stories and the only heartstrings pulled are truthful, intimate, and fulfilling ones. This film is a true documentary of the biggest challenge chronicling Caleb Mock's personal experience and his battle for survival. What was the biggest challenge for Kicklighter?
Kicklighter says, "First of all, I thought there really needed to be a singular voice telling the story--without doctors, or nurses weighing in on the process of cancer treatment like you would normally see in this type of films. I've had seen that documentary before. To my mind, I felt as though the experience of treatment, whether it is cancer or any other disease, is a singular experience. Yes, you go through it with other people, your family, your partner, your children, but ultimately you are going through it alone with the aid of others. I wanted [the film] to take the audience through that experience too."
I asked how the film was shot in such an intimate way and was surprised by Kicklighter's answer. He chose an uncharted channel to keep the intimacy of the interpersonal relationships of his characters intact--his absence. It was clearly tricky to pull off the single camera, single perspective and Kicklighter knew it would be--so he made the family the inside film crew.
"I gave Caleb his own camera and taught him and his family how to shoot footage. And we used Dropbox every week to review what they shot because there were moments that I did not want to go into the hospital and be invasive to his treatment process. I'd give him notes as to what we needed to see more of as we reviewed what they shot, then every other week, I came in with a limited crew and would film him ourselves. That's how we merged the two shooting styles, creating something intimate, but also non invasive." Kicklighter says. Were it not for new media transfer and hours by hours of footage traveling through an email box over the internet, Caleb's tale would not have been the same.
"There are two things that I wanted to accomplish here as a director: the first being, I didn't want to inject commentary into the film, I wanted to shoot it as the events unfolded and discover the message as I went. Secondly, I wanted to be non-invasive to his treatment process while retaining the authenticity. I feel like we did that."
The camera transfixes a single shot held by one of the family members or even his crew from tons of collected footage, sewn together into a seamless blanket covering the illness and recovery of one patient during seven rounds of chemotherapy spanning two-week intervals. Whether a scene is shot by Kicklighter's crew, Caleb's mom, his wife Jada, or even Caleb himself, we see the highs and lows of the treatment, medication, surgery, and all of the solipsistic hours in between. Mock's role as husband, son, and patient, and friend are shored up into a short documentary package intended to humanize the reality of facing mortality at such a young age.
"I had enough footage to make a very long movie,"Kicklighter adds, "I chose not to because I thought it was better to focus it and keep it contained. As a film maker, I like to tell a variety of different stories. I try to waffle between narrative films and documentary projects, mostly. In all of my films, the themes tend to deal with loss and identity--I think this documentary fits right into that canon. This film is about loss of the person that Caleb was, and discovering who he is as he goes through this strange quarter-life crisis that most twenty-five year-old's don't have to tackle."
Kicklighter talks freely about his love for the business of film and offers advice to those looking to make movies and the role of technology today. "I think there is now more access for people that make an attempt at making a film, now you've got smartphones that shoot such high quality and you've got editing software that comes free on all these computers. When I got started you had to invest in cameras or rent them and buy expensive software, it wasn't as cheap as it is now. So really at the end of the day, it comes down to how you perfect and hone your storytelling skills in a low-budget way. Don't run off and get the most expensive camera you can if you're starting out because you don't need it--you need to know how to tell a story effectively and how to edit properly and stay focused."
Kicklighter adds that he actually got his degree in Public Relations from Georgia Southern, he did not study film but has been doing films since he was sixteen years old. He credits his PR training as having prepared him to market his own productions and his volley between writing and directing.
The best part of this project is that it pays off in a happy ending. For our readers, it also reveals the ties of friendship once-forgotten, and a favor tethered through the diligence and perseverance of film making. Even better, we are reminded that we all remain connected through social media; today's outreach can reconnect the ties that passing time threatens.
For more information about James Kicklighter, check out his website.