Independent filmmaker Maria Finitzo has directed and produced a wide-range of award-winning documentaries, encompassing the command and control of nuclear weapons to the psychology of adolescent girls. A long time associate of Kartemquin Films, she recently sat down to discuss her newly completed project, Terra Incognita.
The feature-length film follows Dr. Jack Kessler, a leading stem cell researcher, and his paraplegic daughter Allison. Their story illuminates a larger interplay between the promise of new discoveries, the controversy of modern science and the resilience and courage of people living with devastating disease and injury.
Interviewer: Firstly, what is your background in film, specifically, science-related film?
Maria: Before joining Kartemquin as an Associate, I worked on The New Explorers Science and Adventure PBS Series. I had also studied science as an undergraduate and always wanted to do a film about it.
How did the stem cell movie come about?
I read an article about Kessler and his daughter in the Tribune, sent him a letter and a few of our films, and then called him up and went and met with him.
Perhaps you could comment on the development of any project, the course of events that allows any documentary, in this case, Terra Incognita, to go from a possibility, to, let's do it, to, it's happening, to, here it is, almost done?
It takes a lot of time, commitment and research. You have to know what your story is and have a really good idea about how you will approach the story. All this has to happen before you can even hope to convince a funder to support the project. Most of the time this phase is done without money.
Documentary filmmakers become de facto experts on the particular topics their films explore. Were you well versed on the stem cell issue before beginning Terra Incognita?
No that's the great part about making a film. It is a wonderful way to learn all about something.
Where is the film as regards its final cut and eventual world premiere and distribution?
The film is finished! Over 700 people attended the free and public Chicago-area premiere screening, hosted by Northwestern University's Center for Genetic Medicine on May 10th at Thorne Auditorium downtown. The film was well received and a follow up screening at Evanston similarly filled the house. The film has been picked up by Independent Lens and will air in December.
What have been the project's biggest surprises and challenges, along the way?
Making the science something people can understand. Other challenges would be structuring a film that blends science, cinema verite, political and ethical issues into a compelling story.
What are your hopes for it? What can it potentially accomplish? What makes it a unique offering?
It is the first documentary about stem cell research that approaches the topic through the personal stories of people who do the research and might benefit from the research. In short, it puts a human face on stem cell research.
What's next for you?
With the help of communication specialists Active Voice, Finitzo will collaborate with civic organizations, research institutions, colleges, and film clubs to bring the stem cell debate to the public for discussion. You can see the film January 15, 2008 on the PBS series, Independent Lens. Check out KTQ news online for more discussion and screening opportunities for Terra Incognita.