Making documentaries is nothing new to Michele Ohayon. She was nominated in 1997 for Colors Straight Up in the Best Documentary Feature category. She worked on the 2013 tribute to Angelina Jolie when she was honored at the Governors Awards.
Her latest work, Cristina is probably without a doubt, one of her most difficult projects to date. A close family friend asked her to document her journey after being diagnosed with cancer. Ohayon who’s worked on million dollar productions before, steps away from that to film an intimate portray of one woman’s fight against cancer, mixing captured footage and home movies. The end result is a raw piece of filmmaking.
Awards Daily: You just screened this to the public, what was that moment like?
Michel Ohayon: I’ve just got back from the Palm Springs festival, it was the first time I had ever shown the film, and I wanted to see the audience’s reaction. It was a really strong reaction for you? It screened on Saturday. There was total silence for the entire 40 minutes. I liked that people could laugh in parts when she was being goofy in her home video. You never know with an audience, they think it’s a serious subject and they can’t laugh. That didn’t happen, and it felt like I had done my job. The ending really resonated too, everyone has a cancer story that they can relate to. They came out invigorated and wanted to live their lives to the fullest which is why she wanted me to make the film, to get that message across.You need some perspective on life, and we’re impacted by what happens around us.
AD: You were friends first of all, then what happened?
I was friends with her husband Bruce first. He had met Christina, and when I met her, I realized she was a special person. As we got to know each other, I knew she had cancer, but then she was cancer free. We went out dancing, her hair grew back, and we were delighted, but then one day, I got a call from Bruce who told me that the cancer had come back. I went over, and she was in that, “Why now? Why me? ” She was going through that turmoil, and she wasn’t a smoker, she didn’t drink, and she was athletic. She looked at me, and said, “You know what Michele, you’re going to make a film about my journey.” I told her I wasn’t going to do it. I wanted to be there for her, and not be holding a camera.
She said, “This is important to me. I want people to know about the journey.”
I explained that I would be in her face everywhere. I agreed to do it on the condition that she would promise me a happy ending. It gave her an extra strength because she felt a responsibility to people watching the movie, and she wanted to give them strength. Of course, the ending wasn’t what we had wanted. It also came much sooner, but she will live forever through the film, and so will her message.
AD: How much footage did you have when you’re documenting this journey?
I had twenty hours because I didn’t know it would end so quickly. I also didn’t rush over there to film. I was also finishing another movie. When I watched the footage, I could have done a feature documentary. I decided to make a short, and her home videos illustrate the love story, showing the kind of person she was when she wasn’t sick.
AD: How tough was that for you? You’re watching your friend die, and then you had to edit that footage.
It was tough. I didn’t touch the footage for three years. I would watch a clip here and there reminding myself that this was something I had to do. After three years had passed, I finally had the courage to delve in there. It was cut slowly, a year actually.
It wasn’t the kind of film where you do ADR, it was minimal and as raw as it was.
I filmed it myself, there was no professional lighting, it was just the two of us that gave us that intimate look at her journey.
AD: You capture that in watching the film. You see the rawness of it all.
I wanted her eyes to tell the story. Her eyes are telling. Her face is telling. She goes from fear and hope to my body is giving up.
The content dictates the form. I’ve done big productions when it needed to be that way.
AD: How did this change you as a filmmaker doing something so close to the heart?
It taught me about survival and about the strength one finds within themselves to overcome obstacles.
Each film has a variation of that. This film is what I think about when I face a challenge. I think of her, I see her face, and her laugh. I move on and use it as a guide in life. It really affected me deeply.
AD: It’s such a tribute to her. What did her family think when they saw it?
They are not ready to see it. They know that Cristina had asked and trusted me to see the film. They made space for me to film on her deathbed, and it was very courageous on their part to do that. They have said in time they will see it. They gave me their blessings, but for them, it’s too fresh.
Her husband saw it. I wanted him to give his blessings. I flew to him in Toronto, he saw the cut and it was painful for him, but he said, this was exactly the film she wanted you to make. That meant a lot to me.
Cristina will screen on Netflix on November 15 and will be screened on Wednesday September 21 for the Academy.