Spotlight: Under Our Skin

  • 1. Introduce yourself and your film
    My name is Andy Abrahams Wilson and I’m the Producer/Director and Principal Cinematographer of Under Our Skin. I run a nonprofit indie production company called Open Eye Pictures, based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Under Our Skin is a searing expose into the hidden epidemic of Lyme disease, an epidemic larger than AIDS and sometimes just as deadly.

    2. How did you become interested in filmmaking?
    In college, I started with an interest in non-fiction by way of journalism. Then I moved to cultural anthropology for the opportunity to delve deeper into my subjects. Then I wanted to combine my interest in photography as a way to explore culture, which led me to the one and only graduate program in visual anthropology–at USC. There I was exposed to motion picture storytelling, which seemed the perfect blend for my background and interests. It still is!

    3. Tell us about your inspiration and vision for the film.
    My journey into the world of Lyme disease started by accident. A friend of mine in San Francisco was getting sicker and sicker with severe, progressive neurological illness. She was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and then ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s disease–basically a death sentence). But she kept looking for possible explanations and, finally, was diagnosed with Lyme disease. Lyme disease?! I recalled that my twin sister in Upstate New York suffered from it years ago. I remember she was always tired and achy, even though she looked just fine. So I never took it seriously, like most people, and I believed it was just an East Coast disease, if a real disease at all.

    So I was shocked that Lyme disease could be so debilitating, even life-threatening. I discovered that the prevalence of Lyme disease in the U.S. may be at least ten times greater than HIV, and West Nile virus combined. Like its genetic cousin, the “great imitator” syphilis, it mimics other illnesses, including chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, MS, Alzheimer’s, ALS, and autism. I learned it could be transmitted from mother to child in utero and that sexual transmission was entirely possible. Worse still: standard tests have proven to be inaccurate, and most physicians are untrained to diagnose or treat the illness. Those that do treat chronic Lyme patients may risk the suspension of their medical licenses. On the patient side, I found variations of the same story repeated thousand-fold: doctor after doctor, years of misdiagnoses, accusations of hypochondria, hundreds of thousands of dollars exhausted, denial of insurance coverage and, finally if ever, a long road back to health.

    What was going on? What if my friend had stopped after the ALS diagnosis? Would she still be alive today? What if my sister didn’t persevere until she proved wrong those (like myself) who thought it was all in her head? Sometimes I think the film is my way of making penance for the way I treated my sister when she was sick. After all, William Osler, considered to be the father of modern medicine, once said, “If you listen carefully to the patient they will tell you the diagnosis.” Our patriarchal medical system is coming up against its limits of knowledge and arrogance, threatened by “Internet activists” (mostly women) who are taking their family’s healthcare into their own hands, sharing community and resources, and demanding help.

    After four years of research and production—and over 375 hours of footage, what we uncovered is a chilling tale of microbes, medicine and money. Deregulation of scientific research and conflicts of interest in medicine are poisoning healthcare, denying our citizens health, and costing our citizenry profound loss of productivity. Lyme disease is the canary in the coalmine and a case study for what’s broken and needs fixing.

    At the epicenter, a tiny, but larger-than-life microbe looms, providing a powerful symbol for an issue that is hidden and lurking, so small yet so big, so real but unrecognized. What has gotten under our skin is not just a microorganism, but medicine itself, and a poisonous system which has abandoned some of the most needy. Our own human skin is a microcosm of the skin of the earth, and if the earth’s body is out of balance, so is our own.

    I want to show the horror of an illness and an ill system that too long has been ignored. But I also want to show the human and natural beauty right next to it. Sometimes indistinguishable, the beauty and horror are intertwined. If Under Our Skin merely perpetuates the idea that the natural world is perilous, or that human nature is corrupt, we miss out on the beauty that surrounds us. On the other hand, if we are lulled by convention or don’t look below the surface, we risk infection by the equally dangerous maladies of ignorance and indifference.

    4. What were some of the biggest challenges in making and completing the film?
    Besides fundraising, the biggest challenge was to tell a very complicated, scientific and nuanced story in a way that was both accessible and visceral. With the profound help of editor Eva Ilona Brzeski and composer Justin Melland, I think we accomplished that.

    5. If this is your 1st film, what will you take away from the experience that you can apply to the next?
    What I recall from my first film that informs all my subsequent work is the importance of understanding our personal motivations for making our films. Where does the urge to create this particular film come from? How does it relate to my life? If Jung is correct that all our creations are projections, then we need to try to understand those connections between our work and our selves. Otherwise, we risk exploiting the subjects of our film for our own subconscious motivations.

    6. What’s next?
    What’s next is a documentary about the National AIDS Memorial in San Francisco. Did you know that more Americans died of AIDS than in all of the U.S. wars since 1900? Over 500,000 people! AIDS is more than just a disease. It represents a historical landmark, a cultural and demographic war, and scar on our collective humanity. Our film, THE GROVE, tells this story and asks questions about how we memorialize such loss and who own grief in the public sphere. The film, now in post, has been selected for completion and distribution support by ITVS and is bound for broadcast through the PBS network.

    7. In the spirit of independent cinema and Gravitas Ventures, what is your favorite indie film?
    I really don’t have favorites. I think a good observer has to stay fluid. The moment we fix on favorites, we risk prejudice and closing ourselves off to new ways of being and seeing.

    January 10th, 2011 | Joe Wilka |

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