The AFI DOCS Interview: THE CLINIC With Director Elivia Shaw – American Film Institute

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The AFI DOCS Interview: THE CLINIC With Director Elivia Shaw

For a few hours every Saturday, Dr. Marc Lasher and a group of volunteers provide free medical care and clean needles to IV drug users from across Fresno County, California. On a dingy old school bus, Dr. Lasher bandages wounds and counsels his patients, many of whom have turned to street medicine to avoid the stigma and cost of a failed health care system. AFI spoke with Elivia Shaw about her new short film.

THE CLINIC plays as part of the Shorts program at AFI DOCS at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, MD on Thursday, June 20 and at the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington DC on Friday, June 21. Buy tickets to the screening here.

AFI: What led you to pursue documentary filmmaking?

I always had an obsession with film since I was very young, but I wanted to stay grounded in the reality of the world around us and use film to break barriers between people in addition to expressing myself as an artist. In college, I saw Frederick Wiseman’s HOSPITAL for the first time and it connected with me very deeply. Part of that was because it illuminated some of the experiences and hard work done by the people most important to me in my life. My parents both worked in mental health in hospitals and my best friends were social work students at the time. I also loved how non-didactic it was. It allowed you to explore a space openly. I found so much beauty in wrangling the chaos of real life into a piece of art. Unlike with fiction film, I found the lack of control over your canvas absolutely thrilling. 

AFI: How did you become interested and inspired to tell this narrative?

I love films about spaces that are a microcosm for larger social issues. I found the opioid epidemic in this country incredible in the breadth of the harm it has done but also in our inability to deal with its roots. When something like that affects such a huge number of people and goes on for years and years, it points to something much deeper in our social fabric. The drug companies got away with their crimes in part because of the way our health care system has completely failed us and because we allow a “fix it the easy way” culture to thrive. But now how do we pick up the pieces? I wanted to make a film about someone who I considered a model for moving us forward who was not an addict but someone from the medical or health care field because that’s where the solution lies, not in the individual responsibility of those suffering. The moment I met Dr. Lasher I found him both brutally honest and efficient and incredibly caring. I could also see that he was a local hero to his patients. He was also doing whatever he could with whatever he had. Dr. Lasher wasn’t worried about fancy equipment or the best offices. He was a good reminder of how much we could be doing with so little. 

AFI: How did you find and connect with Dr. Lasher and the other subjects in THE CLINIC?

I love reading local newspapers so I honed in on a few cities that were somewhat local to me where opioids were a major problem. Fresno is a fascinating place, and the way the drug problem intertwines with agricultural production points to the lack of opportunity that I think is getting worse and worse throughout this country. The Fresno Bee did a piece on Dr. Lasher, and I found both him and the space of the clinic really fascinating. I called him and he said just come to a Saturday clinic and see things for yourself. I went down without a camera, and I could definitely feel something in the air. The space felt like a safe place for people where they were able to let loose a little — something between a block party and a medical clinic. I wanted to dig into that and why what he was doing felt so unique to me. 

AFI:  What was a particular struggle you faced working on the documentary? 

A lot of patients didn’t want to be filmed, which I completely expected and respected. I was asking myself the whole time if I was crossing the line into voyeurism, but as more and more people agreed and Dr. Lasher’s enthusiasm grew, I felt that, combined with the right shooting style, I could make this film. In the end, I had way too much footage and usually felt pretty welcomed. But I think a big part of why many people were accommodating to me was because they trusted Dr. Lasher and the volunteers who work with him every week. So I benefited a lot from their hard work.

AFI:  What do you hope viewers walk away with after seeing your film?

I want them to think about what respectful care looks like and consider Dr. Lasher’s patience and willingness to get the hard work done. I also want them to think about how much you can do in your community with so little, and I hope they are more willing to break boundaries maybe they’ve put up between themselves and others who may have something different going on in their lives, whether it’s addiction or something else. For me, Dr. Lasher represents a willingness to return to a mentality of community and responsibility for taking care of each other.

AFI: Why is Washington, DC a valuable location to screen THE CLINIC?

Well, on a lighter note, it’s my home town, and I grew up learning to love documentaries through this festival. The issues being dealt with in this film are also present in DC, and there’s great work being done by lots of harm reduction organizations here. There’s always the hope that a film can be used as a tool to change policy too, so showing it in DC is particularly important for me. It would be great to use this festival experience as a way to meet activists, community members or medical professionals who want to use the film as a tool for their work.

AFI:  Why are documentaries so important today?

I think they allow us to engage in an in-depth way with the pieces of the world around us we might not understand or have a habit of simplifying. They force us to slow down but stay in the reality of the world around us which is getting harder and harder to do. Great documentaries complicate things, and I have always loved that about them, especially when they do it in a visceral and experiential way. 

Buy tickets to THE CLINIC here.

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