Nimisha Mukerji did not want to make this film.
A friend had come back from visiting India, suggesting there might be a story in Ms. Mukerji’s uncle, an advocate for the thousands of children in India afflicted with thalassemia – a genetic blood disorder. But Ms. Mukerji was just completing her first feature: 65_RedRoses, about Eva Markvoort, a young woman with cystic fibrosis who began blogging while awaiting a double lung transplant.
65_RedRoses was very well received (The New York Times called it “illuminating” and “oddly uplifting”) and won numerous awards – it even got the attention of Oprah Winfrey – but the last thing Ms. Mukerji wanted to do was make another documentary about sick young people.
“I was very resistant to this story,” Ms. Mukerji said recently, over a chai latte in Vancouver. “My friend mentioned it and I said no: This is everything I said I didn’t want to do. It’s about illness, potentially fatal illness, it’s about kids, it’s a Third World country, I’m so out of my element, I’ve never lived in India before.”
Ms. Mukerji was also, understandably, worried about being labelled as a filmmaker who only does a certain kind of project.
She expressed these concerns to Ms. Markvoort, who was a friend as well as a film subject. “I was telling her about all my insecurities about this film. I said people are going to label me, say I only do health-care films, I can’t do anything else. I basically voiced all my fears. And she went,‘You’re telling me all these reasons not to do it. What are the reasons you should do it?’”
The reasons to have done it are apparent the moment you start watching Blood Relative, which has its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival on Saturday. As the film begins in Mumbai, we meet Imran: 24 years old, Eminem fanatic, call centre employee, and suffering from thalassemia. Charming and intelligent, he had to leave school to support his family and pay for his iron chelation treatment. The treatment is necessary: These children must undergo regular blood transfusions, which cause a build-up of iron. Without the iron chelation, they will likely die in their teens.
He needs to support his family because his father, unable to deal with Imran’s illness, abandoned the family when Imran was a boy. Imran still looks like a boy – thalassemia can also stunt growth – but he is determined to live a normal life.
Then we meet Vinay Shetty, Ms. Mukerji’s uncle. Almost too good to be true, he has sacrificed everything – his own savings, his earning potential, the possibility of marriage – to fight for these children. While their parents pray for solutions, he is a flesh-and-blood saviour.
In Ms. Mukerji’s family, Mr. Shetty (who is in Vancouver for the screenings) is the “kooky uncle” engaged in a fight nobody really understands, much like they don’t exactly understand Ms. Mukerji’s chosen profession.
“They don’t know what documentaries are,” she says of her family in India. “They were like, ‘Oh you guys would get along; we don’t understand what either of you are doing.’ ”
At 28, Ms. Mukerji has won numerous awards, including honours at VIFF, Hot Docs and the Banff World Television Festival for 65_RedRoses, which aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network as part of its Documentary Club. Ms. Mukerji’s short narrative, Arrival Hour, won the fan favourite award at the RBC Emerging Filmmakers Competition, part of the Toronto International Film Festival Talent Lab. Blood Relative, after showing at VIFF and the South Asian Film Festival of Canada, will air on B.C.’s Knowledge Network in November.
But, like her kooky uncle, Ms. Mukerji has had to make personal sacrifices to chase the dream; she recently moved back home to White Rock to save money.
On the issue of money, there is a companion online campaign to Blood Relative, as there was for 65_RedRoses. Ms. Mukerji is adamant about raising funds – and awareness.
The lack of awareness is not just an issue here in North America. Blood Relative’s other main character is Divya: At 15, she looks nine. She’s had transfusions for years, but has never undergone the iron chelation treatment. Mr. Shetty tries to explain the gravity of her situation to her parents, who have never had these basic facts explained to them.
At the same time, he is lobbying the health minister, Suresh Shetty (no relation), to have the government fund the crucial treatment.
Ms. Mukerji spent just over a year following the two patients and their champion. Her timing was excellent; it was a tumultuous year, where, without giving too much away, things unravelled for them all.
The timing also worked on another front. Ms. Markvoort died in April, 2010. Three days later, Ms. Mukerji was on a plane to India for a shoot.
“The film actually ended up being so important to the healing process for me,” Ms. Mukerji says. “If I didn’t have this film, it would have been a very dark year. But Eva was about finding hope, and Vinay is about finding hope in the darkest situation. That’s what this film has done for me. It’s enabled me to keep hopeful.”
Blood Relative is at VIFF Saturday at 6:45 p.m. (Granville 2), Wednesday at 4:15 p.m. (Granville 7), and Friday at 9:15 p.m. (Granville 2).