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The old expression “Don’t get mad—get even” has now become “Don’t get mad—get a camera crew.” When Rebecca Perl learned—shortly after the birth of her first child—that she had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the National Public Radio health science reporter was offered a grant to write about the experience. Not feeling quite up to that task, she turned to her Silver Spring neighbor, video director-producer Dan Collison, who documented her treatment in Scenes From a Transplant: A Cancer Diary.
“I remember having to really, really ponder it long and hard,” says Collison, “because I knew it was going to be a commitment—as a project and also as a friend—to be going through a harrowing medical ordeal alongside her in a way. And so I didn’t immediately say yes. There were a lot of things we didn’t have going for us. There was no committed funding—we had no broadcast outlet interested. And we were going to Omaha, Nebraska, in the middle of winter—in Rebecca’s case, to go through a life-saving medical ordeal—and for us to witness and document it.” “Us” included Rebecca’s then-fiance and now-husband Tom Jennings, who acted as co-director and co-producer. “I ended up thinking it was worthwhile primarily because of Rebecca’s character, Rebecca as a person. I thought her story would be worth telling. She was very open and honest about it,” says Collison.
Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to imagine much Perl might have left out as you watch her matter-of-factly detail the bad days and slightly less bad days of bone-marrow transplant and chemotherapy. “It was my idea to have her in effect keep a video diary,” says Collison. “She wasn’t always thrilled about it. I sometimes felt kinda pushy making her do it on her bad days.”
Nebraska in winter provides an appropriately gray accompaniment to Perl’s journey. The often agonizing intimacy captured on-screen owes to the use of relatively new, very small digital video cameras, which allowed Collison and Jennings to use natural light and to serve as the entire crew—often only one of them—to be right there with every excruciating development.
“I don’t think we could have done this story with a big crew,” Collison says. “One scene, I was allowed into the operating room. I don’t think they would have liked three or four people.”
The filmmakers intend Scenes From a Transplant to be used for educational purposes. This week’s screening will be on the third-year anniversary of Perl’s bone-marrow operation. “We feel kinda blessed,” says Collison, “because on the second anniversary we got a DuPont/Columbia award for the radio version that played on This American Life.” —Dave Nuttycombe
Scenes From a Transplant screens Thursday, Jan. 20, at 7:30 p.m. at Studio 650, 650 Massachusetts Avenue NW.