'Hope' Film Preview
Would you go against what you believe is right to save someone you love? Could you be willing to bend your values?
Those questions and more swirl through the plot of the movie "Hope," a film shot in Kansas City, written by a Topeka doctor and starring two actors from Lawrence.
The film, which revolves around the issue of stem cell research, screened last week as part of the Cannes Market at the Cannes Film Festival in France. And those involved with the project are hoping it reaches a broader audience, with distributor iDream Independent Films ("Monsoon Wedding" and "Bend it Like Beckham") picking up the rights.
"I'm really proud to be part of something that takes such a good political stand," says Ranjit Arab of Lawrence, who plays Dr. Preet Walia in the film. "I'm glad that it is, because we do need to discuss stem cell research."
Arab, along with attorney Charles Whitman, are the two Lawrence residents cast in the film.
The movie centers around a crisis in the Moreland family. Father Bob is a conservative senator who is one of stem cell research's main opponents. But when the senator's son, Josh, suffers a serious spinal cord injury in a car crash, his wife Eleanor pushes the idea of sending their son to a stem cell trial in India. Sen. Moreland is opposed to the idea, which goes against every thing he has worked for during his political career, even though such treatment could heal his son.
The film was the outgrowth of "Hope ... In Vitro," a book written by Shelley Chawla, a Topeka physician, and Dianne Wilson, a nurse practitioner in New Mexico. (Kansas City-based Christopher Ryan also worked on the screenplay.)
Chawla and Wilson were inspired to write the book after President George W. Bush's 2001 decision to restrict the use of embryonic stem cells in research funded by the U.S. government.
Stem cells are valuable to researchers because they can turn into different types of cells and thus can be used to treat various medical conditions.
There are two types - those taken from adults and those taken from embryos. The embryonic cells have generated the most controversy in recent years, drawing concern from those affiliated with the anti-abortion movement who believe life begins at conception. But many researchers, including those with the National Institutes of Health, say the embryonic cells offer the most hope for medical applications; those opposing the use of embryonic cells say adult stem cells have, at this point, proven more useful in the lab.
Chawla, who was raised in India, says he was aware of stem cell research going on in the country and thought it would be a good example of a nation that is working with stem cells without much controversy.
"India, first of all, the controversy would not be as strong there because India is a poor country, a third-world ... country," Chawla says. "They have issues of starvation, they have issues of corruption. I don't think, you know, they've had time to dwell too much on the stem cell controversy."
Here in the United States, though, stem cell research is part of a controversy within the larger debate over abortion.
Arab says that he believes the movie is sensitive to all religious views and that ignoring the religious aspect of the debate would keep the film from ringing true.
"I thought it was a really nice inclusion, because you can't separate the religion and the politics in this issue. Everyone's opinion does matter," Arab says. "I think it does a nice job of respecting people who do have strong religious beliefs. It's just a really complicated situation."
In Chawla's mind, the situation is a bit easier to boil down if compared with an easily understood example - Jehovah's Witnesses. They do not accept blood, but they also don't keep others from accepting blood because of their own religious perspective on the practice, Chawla says.
"So, one religious perspective can't hold back research for the whole world," Chawla says simply.
Moved to write
More than anything, though, Chawla and Wilson felt compelled to write the book - and later make the movie - because they felt the United States was getting behind on stem cell research, Chawla says.
"We felt passionate about the fact that we were seeing patients and their families suffering and then (there's) such a big debate about what is ethical and what is not ethical," Chawla says.
Chawla says that the film isn't intended to sway the viewer in any one direction, rather, its purpose is to educate while personalizing the extremely politicized subject. That idea hit home with the movie's director, Rich Ambler of Fairway, whose late father suffered from Alzheimer's. Ambler noted Chawla, as a neurologist, works with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's patients who could be helped by stem cells.
"Stem cell research may very well lead to finding a cure for those things," Ambler says. "That's one aspect of why I wanted to do the film, was just to get the message out there, to get it in front of people.
"Also, the other one was it was an intriguing story. What would you do if one of your own family members was faced with a situation like this and you had to go against a belief that you'd had for all your life, or career, anyway, and change your mind and go another direction in order to try and save your kid's life?"