Filmmaker Fuels Call for Empathy and Health Justice

Alexandra Pamias

Rain fell lightly on the Georgetown campus during the evening of Monday, November 9. While the rest of the campus was quiet and solitary, one of the lecture rooms in the Medical School was bustling with activity.

In the crowd of students, a beautiful little girl named Eboni was the life of the room. She captured everyone’s attention with her joyful disposition and at one point she got ahold of a stethoscope and ran around listening to people’s hearts.

The reason for this gathering at the Georgetown University School of Medicine (GUSOM) was to screen Eboni’s mother’s film, “Raise to Rise.”

Sasha Williams, Street Sense vendor and founding member of the Street Sense Filmmakers Cooperative, shared her and her daughter’s story through this self directed film.

Williams has been dealing with homelessness since 2003 and during her last stay with her daughter at DC General family shelter she decided to record her experience and present it to the world as a short documentary.

The film is a portrait of Williams and her relationship with Eboni.

“This is me. This is raw me,” said Williams. “No make-up. It me and the things that I have to deal with.”

Lauren Antognoli, a second year student at GUSOM and the main organizer of the screening, stepped up to the podium, and officially began the event.

The Street Sense Film Co-op has actively made itself available for private screenings and they have received many requests, but the connection at this event is special and unique.

Williams met Antognoli at the HOYA Clinic when she was still living at DC General. The clinic is free and run by Georgetown medical students and they offer their services at the shelter. As part of the HOYA Child Assessment Team at DC General, Antognoli conducted an evaluation of Eboni.

“After only a few minutes with Eboni, I realized she was incredibly sweet, bright, vivacious, and very very fast,” said Antognoli on the stage. “She never stopped running, giggling, and playing.”

She described Williams as a “strong, smart, motivated woman with unmistakable devotion to the health, happiness, and well being of her daughter.”

“This was a very special duo,” she added.

After their interaction at the Hoya Clinic, Antognoli eventually bought a Street Sense paper down at Eastern Market one day and was very excited to see a picture of Williams. The picture accompanied an article in which she explained what she and Eboni wanted from Santa.

It was here that Antognoli learned about Williams’s passion for film and how she was progressing as a filmmaker. After not being able to attend the sold out screening of “Raise to Rise,” she reached out to Street Sense and organized the screening at Georgetown University School of Medicine.

“You’re not just progressing as a filmmaker, like you said in your article last year,” said Antognoli as she finished up her opening statement for the event. “You are a filmmaker and we welcome you here tonight at Georgetown.”

Bryan Bello is the founder and facilitator of the Street Sense Film Cooperative and he firmly believes in the power of film to help people express themselves.

“Our work began as an opportunity for individuals who are often sort of documented to give them a chance to speak for themselves, and to find themselves,” said Bello at the event.

Image of Bryan Bello delivering his opening statement at the "Raise to Rise" screening.
Bryan Bello delivers his opening statement at the “Raise to Rise” screening | Photo by Alexandra Pamias

As part of the co-op, members get to direct their own stories and work with other individuals who have had similar but different experiences as well.  Everyone partners on somebody else’s film as well as creating their own.

Williams joined the co-op after it was founded in April 2014 and since then has been one of the most active members.

“She came in a couple of months later but she has pretty much never missed a class,” said Bello. “Right away it was evident that she was going to be a sustaining and powerful participant so we made her a founding member.”

The film’s producer, Angie Whitehurst, attended the film screening alongside Sasha and Eboni. Whitehurst is another strong figure in the Street Sense community and, as she said she was once described, her “blunt and succinct” manner entertained the students during the Q&A session.

But despite the initial light tone, she got serious when talking about what the medical community can do for people experiencing homelessness.

“What we need is our medical community, our community leaders, our seniors, everybody to stand up and advocate for basic services and basic respect,” said Whitehurst. “That would be a start.”

She also brought the issue of medical time lags to the discussion. According to Whitehurst, having people wait a month to treat an illness only worsens the situation for those in need.

“One medical issue gets chronically worse before you can get treated for the other,” she said. “And this is bad for seniors, it’s bad for mothers with children, it’s bad for everybody. And if we keep people healthy, we can keep them from being homeless.”

Students who attended the screening of “Raise to Rise” were captivated and touched by the film.

“I was just very impressed by how brave she is to tell her story. I was so moved and it really made me think about all the things I have in my life that I take for granted,” said Jennifer Clark, one of the medical students present at the screening. “It was really inspiring.”

Caitlin Sorensen and Caitlin Ingraham are Health Justice scholars at the GUSOM and coordinators at the HOYA Clinic.

“I could tell that she was very inspired to be a filmmaker and to find a way to tell her story,” said Sorensen. “And like what [Bello] had said earlier, a lot of times these people have stories written about them but they don’t get to tell their own story.”

“It reminded us of a saying about how important it is to remember that patients are people and that they have lives outside of what we are seeing in the hospital,” added Ingraham.

As medical students advance in their education, studies have shown that there is loss of empathy that hardens them towards their patients.

Dr. Tobie Smith is the Medical Director at Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore County and Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at Georgetown University. She was one of the moderators of Monday’s film screening and she stressed that this trend is pretty well known in medical schools and medical education but “it is obviously not the outcome we want for our students.”

“[There is a need to] connect with patients and understand their life situations and kind of have that environment for health care,” said Dr. Smith.

Bryan Bello explained how at the film co-op many stories come out that were never shared before because of the trust that the group members have in each other.

“We might have a film maker who, because he or she is directing their own story, is including information that they never told a mental health worker despite having years of experience with a case worker or a psychologist,” he said.

Bello stressed the importance of not labeling every person who is experiencing homelessness as the same. He explained that if a doctor assumes that everyone is cut from the same cloth then the patient will pick up on that and not open up to him or her.

“You have to understand that as a doctor, [when a traumatized patient comes to you] there is probably going to be a little distrust,” said Bello. “If you can’t get someone to trust you by showing some empathy you’re kind of making your work irrelevant because you’re not committed to the most positive final outcome.”

Sasha Williams’s film is a great example of a way people can get to know the humanity and unique stories behind patients.

“She just sort of bears her soul to the camera and it’s so brave to share it with the world,” said Bello. “I think people learn something new every time they watch it and I think that was the case at Georgetown.”

Bello, Whitehurst and Williams worked closely for weeks to create and execute “Raise to Rise.” Whitehurst explains how the three of them would meet for days on end to edit the film and make sure that all the pieces fit together.

Williams was given an iPhone to film herself and record different vocal part of the life she was living with her daughter at DC General.

When they would show up at DC General to film, guards appeared and started asking questions. Residents would talk loudly, disapproving of what Williams and the co-op was doing.

“It was a little intimidating,” said Whitehurst. “But we were cool, Sasha was cool, and of course Eboni makes everybody cool.”

The result of this hard work is an emotional and eye opening film.

“When Sasha tells her story, you feel her humility, you feel the tone of some of her sadness, you feel the wish and desire to get up and out of a bad situation and you feel her tenderness and concern as a mother,” said Whitehurst.

“Showing “Raise to Rise” at GUSOM was an incredible opportunity for students and faculty to learn more about life at DC General – and beyond! – through the eyes of Sasha and Eboni,” said Antognoli. She added that the students had appreciated the Q&A session at the end of the screening.

Williams has plans to continue directing and capturing people’s stories on film just as she did with hers.

“If I could keep capturing the voices of people, meeting people and interacting with them, I know I’m going to do more,” said Williams. “This is just the beginning for me.”

Issues |Health, Physical|Housing|Living Unsheltered|Shelters

Region |Foggy Bottom|Washington DC

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