A recent showing of David’s Reverie, a thesis film written and directed by Neil Creque Williams MFA ’13, was much more than another successful “Alumni Screening Series” event. It was a rare melding of the arts with effective medical outreach.
The event, which featured live jazz and a large turnout of USC Black Alumni Association members, took the form of a candid after-film discussion about epilepsy, with questions answered by Christianne Heck, medical director of the USC Comprehensive Epilepsy Program.
The 20-minute film centers on a jazz trumpeter (Brandon Fobbs) who struggles with his epilepsy diagnosis, putting his personal relationships and ability to perform with his band in peril.
Authentic look at seizures
Writer-director Williams based the film on his experiences with the disorder, and the result is a realistic, yet stylized, look at seizures.
Williams, a former Black Alumni Association scholarship recipient, hopes to expand the short into a feature-length film, which made its debut at the LA Shorts Fest in 2014 and has since taken to other festivals. The film will have its New York City premiere on March 29 at the New Voices in Black Cinema film series at the BAMcinématek and will be part of the USC First Film Awards in April.
There’s nothing student-looking about the film, with elaborate dream sequences choreographed for 10 dancers by Marika Piday-Warren (who will receive a Ph.D. in critical studies this spring), and an original score by composer Andrae Alexander.
Fobbs, who knew how to play saxophone, had to learn trumpet fingering, take dance lessons and have a fierce-looking prosthetic scar shaved into his head every day of the filming.
The film was shot in nine days in locations around Los Angeles: Leimert Park, Baldwin Hills, downtown and the University Park Campus. It was nominated for Indiewire’s Project of the Year for 2014 and best narrative short at this year’s Pan African Film Festival.
Financing the film
To finance the film, Williams mounted a successful Kickstarter campaign for $6,000 and saved “thousands if not tens of thousands” by using cameras donated by Panavision’s New Filmmaker Program. And he called in favors from classmates and friends — producers Channing Godfrey Peoples, Erik Douglas and Delmar Washington all are MFA grads.
“A lot of people believed in the vision and donated time and in-kind donations,” Williams said. “The film touched them in some way.”
The Q&A after the screening offered a forum for candid questions by audience members, who came from the USC community and the general public, as well as from the Black Alumni Association.
Heck complimented the filmmakers on how “very beautifully” they presented someone struggling with and trying to hide his epilepsy.
“Those with the disease look normal, but they live in fear of something happening,” she said. “They become very guarded and concerned about being out in public.”
Heck, who has a joint appointment at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, said that epilepsy affects one in 26 adults.
“Epilepsy hits everybody equally by race and gender,” she said.
Peak times for people to experience the disease are childhood and in old age. Seizures, which she described as “electrical storms in the brain,” are symptoms of other brain problems, and as people age, those problems accumulate.
“Lots of well-known artists have epilepsy,” she said. “When you treat them, they wonder if the medication is going to dumb down their creativity.
“There are so many ways people are dealing with epilepsy,” Heck said, noting that 70 percent of those treated have their seizures well-controlled with medications. “My main message is that you don’t have to be scared all the time.”
Questions and answers
Heck answered questions about whether to tell your employer you have the disease (usually yes, because you are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act only if you do notify), differing state laws on whether doctors must report patients to their Department of Motor Vehicles and what to do when someone has a seizure. Her instructions were to get the person having a seizure safe, ideally moving them low on the ground and on their side so they can’t bang their head.
“Seizures typically stop within two minutes on their own,” Heck said. “Get down on the floor and hang on to them for a few minutes. If it lasts longer than two to five minutes, call 911.”
The USC Black Alumni Association helped sponsor the screening and discussion, which came about after Kathryn Shirley, a USC Leventhal School of Accounting graduate and chair emeritus of the association, saw the film at the shorts festival.
Michele Turner, the association’s executive director, introduced the film and moderated the panel discussion afterward. Live jazz before the screening was provided by four USC Thornton School of Music freshmen whose group was so new that it didn’t yet have a name. Paul Cornish (keyboard), Henry Solomon (saxophone), Stephen Davis (trumpet) and Celeste Butler (vocals) played jazz standards (“My Funny Valentine,” “Summertime”) to complement the musical spirit of the film.