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Chronicling Cancer

Here’s a link to the film I’m going to write about here.

I’ve done a bit of work recently with Yorkshire Cancer Research. I made them an event video of the Selby Three Swans Sportive back in September and after that I was looking for another project to do, both to expand my portfolio and also to do something with real emotional meaning. I happened upon a blog on the Yorkshire Cancer Research website by a lady called Jo Beagley. Jo has incurable ovarian cancer and has lived with it for three years. She has a husband and two kids and after a day out at the Yorkshire show, her life took a very dark path. It was hard to read, in the sense that the creeping horror of her story was so everyday, so matter of fact that it reminded me it could be about my own life. The gene mutation she describes in her blog is one my own wifes ethnic group is prone to and the thought of it made me feel shrouded in darkness and foreboding. It was so powerful.

The everyday truth of everyday life and death contained in the words is charged with an emotional frankness that only someone facing the deep questions about existence can really speak to.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like reading JK Rowling, it’s just that Jo’s voice in her writing is packed with an earnesty and a truth which is not ignorable.  Jo tells her story with great dignity and with a purpose which seems to transcend her need to write about it. I think (I don’t speak for her) she feels that by writing about it she is helping to normalise conversations about it, and thereby making it easier to have those discussions in the first place. I decided there and then that I wanted to make a film about it. I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to make the film about it, but I knew I wanted to do something to reflect that feeling I got from reading it. I contacted Yorkshire Cancer Research and they spoke to Jo, and before you know it we had a meeting and decided to have a go at it. I went away and reduced the writing into a few key themes – they are:

  1. That life doesn’t stop when you have cancer
  2. That Living with cancer is not something you can choose and it’s a constant burden
  3. That there are areas of life you can still control.


First we agreed a basic script encapsulating the main themes and then played around with some concepts. The one which came through the strongest to me was the idea of carrying a stone around. I wanted to get a load of people going about doing things carrying stones. Given my budget of £0 that didn’t turn out to be all that practical. However I was able to twist the arm of my chief collaborators, Jenny Velez Colby and Anne Tofetlund Jensen and we set a day or two aside to do some shooting. Anne came over from her native Denmark and we got on with it.

Anne and I directed this and Anne is due a large amount of credit for the way it finally looks. Jenny also had her own input, not to mention a change of clothes or two!!

The film opens with a dream sequence – Jenny standing in the woods all alone holding a stone, struggling with it and looking at it. We washed out the green from the colour grade and made the place look ashen to reflect the illness and its real physical effect on people. Jenny cradles the stone like a baby, and interspersed with those scenes are other scenes of foreboding, with Jo’s hopeful and eloquent words impressed over the top. The reality might be dark, but the truth is that Jo fights this darkness in her own way and what comes from her is not darkness but a determination to live.


Then, the protagonist awakes to find that her dream is a reality and the stone is actually with her. The stone could symbolise either the cancer itself or the anxiety of living with it whilst in remission (apparently a controversial term). She goes about her daily business, living life as best she can, struggling with this awkward object. We shot these scenes in York and Knaresborough, often using a long telephoto lens to contextulise Jenny as just one person in a crowd of people. Here I must thank Spring Coffee on Fossgate York for letting us disturb them on a busy afternoon. By the way, Spring in my opinion serve the best coffee in North Yorkshire which is why I chose to go and shoot there!!! It’s not all hard work!!

For the most part she was completely ignored. Jenny was walking around carrying this 2 stone object covered in moss and lichen and no one questioned it or batted an eyelid. In doing this we wanted to demonstrate the sense of isolation one must feel living with a disease like cancer and still having to get on with the daily tasks of life.

Cancer and Diversity

At a certain point here, we hear the voice of Homy Vaziri – a retired Iranian scientist currently resident in West Yorkshire and the father of a friend. Homy speaks in his fabulous voice the words Jo and I agreed on but in Farsi. Homy had, the day previously, finished treatment for bowel cancer.

Saraton – a word which comes through clearly in this section, is the Farsi word for cancer.

And this is really where I encroached into the film – it was my deep fear that Jo’s experience could be my own future that led me to the conclusion that her story was not in fact all her own. It is part of a wider experience in society which finds it’s way past any community barrier, including the barrier of language. We also recorded the voice of Brian Hoare, an exceptionally talented speaker and song writer and previous president of the Methodist Church. I know Brian from my Church  – Gracious Street Methodist. However in the end we wanted to restrict the physical voices to those of Homy and Jo We are very grateful to Brian for giving us his time and hope to make use of him again!

After a while, we go back through the dream sequence and find ourselves at the beach where Jenny is contemplating what to do and she decides to stride into the sea with it.  Jenny goes into the sea and throws in the stone, an walks back. Is this suicide? Is she symbolising death? Is this a rebirth? That’s for you to decide. For me, throwing in the stone represents the decision to throw away anxiety and accept the need for support and love. For others, throwing the stone may mean something different. We end with Jo’s words that a life with cancer is still a life worth living.

Before I started making films professionally I was a Police officer. I spent a lot of time locking up bad guys. I can honestly say that making this film felt like more of a responsibility than doing that. I’ve encroached on peoples lives a lot over my professional career, but to be honest most of them were asking for it and I’m glad I did, but this was something different. It was a genuine honour to have completed it.

I dedicated this film to Jo and Homy, and its going to be shown this week (Nov 16th) at a conference Yorkshire Cancer Research are doing about living with cancer. Big love to Jo, Homy and all those living with cancer, you are stronger than me.

Film about cancer
Being ignored by the public!

Colour grade washed out
Not the grade of the green



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