Welcome back to Meet MNFF, a series of biweekly interviews with Festival alumni. Today, we talk to Anna Moot-Levin, whose film The Providers won the Hernandez/Bayliss Prize – Triumph of the Human Spirit at MNFF5 in 2018. Set against the backdrop of the physician shortage and opioid epidemic in rural America, this moving film follows three healthcare providers in northern New Mexico.
MNFF’s Sophie Hochman caught up with Moot-Levin about the powerful audience response to the film, her commitment to telling stories about healthcare amidst the pandemic, and more.
You screened The Providers at MNFF in 2018. What was it like taking that film on the festival circuit?
It was really fantastic. You work on something for a long time, and then you wonder if it’ll ever see the light of day, and when it finally does, it’s very rewarding. Seeing it resonate with an audience, and having individuals really respond to the film emotionally, was very powerful. The film is about rural healthcare, and it tells stories about health care providers working in a rural community, and there hasn’t really been another film that’s told that story. And so people who are working in rural health care themselves were really overwhelmed in a positive way to see their stories told and their struggles told. For example, I once received an email from the wife of a doctor working in a very rural community in Washington State who just really appreciated it. The film shows how hard it is to provide care in a community with few resources, and the personal toll it takes in terms of the emotional burnout that healthcare providers experience in rural communities. For the wife of a doctor who experiences all of this himself, as he is the only doctor in this rural community, the story felt like it could have been their story. It hit really close to home for her, which spoke to the challenges and difficulties of their own experiences.
How did you get in touch with El Centro, the clinic you feature in The Providers, and how did you choose northern New Mexico as the vehicle for this broader story?
Laura [Green, co-director] and I spent about six months talking to people all around the country involved in rural health care. It was sort of like a phone tree, where we talked to one person, and we asked about their recommendations for other folks to talk to, and eventually we got to Matt Probst, who is in the film. From our first call with him, we knew that this was our story. Of course, we were looking at New Mexico anyway because it is a very rural, underserved state, but we were also talking to people across the country, looking for the people who could tell the story of rural health care, as a microcosm of what was happening in many different communities around the country. Speaking to Matt, as someone who really grew up in the community that he’s serving, and has such a deep dedication to his community, the challenges of the community are so close to home for him. He was taking that experience and coming up with new creative ways to address the crisis in rural health care, to address the lack of health care providers in rural communities. Then we spoke with a number of his colleagues at El Centro, who were all really tackling the problems of rural health care, each in their own way. We felt that what these healthcare practitioners were facing, and the ways they were grappling with providing care to this community, really spoke to what was happening in other communities, and we thought it would really be inspiring to show what a difference these practitioners are making in their community.
You made and screened the film well before COVID hit. Have you been in touch with any of the healthcare providers in the film about their experiences in treating this rural community amidst the pandemic?
In rural communities that are already stretched so thin, COVID has just been another immense challenge, in conjunction with the opioid epidemic, and in conjunction with there not being enough healthcare practitioners in rural communities to begin with. But the community where the film is set, in northern New Mexico, has really risen to the challenge. New Mexico has been a leader in testing, and a leader in vaccination. Matt, who is in the film, has really taken all of his energy, and redirected it towards the COVID fight. They’ve set up testing sites and vaccination sites in these rural communities. I also think that the film reinvigorated the people in it in a way, to kind of see their work reflected back at them, and just sort of furthered their sense of commitment to providing care in a rural community.
What have you been working on since the Festival?
Last summer, my collaborator Laura Green and I shot a short documentary called See Jane Run, which we’re in post production for right now. It’s about a nurse in rural Wisconsin, who decides to run for state senate and has never been involved in politics before, but decided to run really because of COVID. She was enraged by the other candidate who was running, who was parading around without a mask, hugging people, showing no regard for public health or safety on the campaign trail. It really lit a fire under her, and she decided to run for office. Wisconsin is a very divided state, and even when we were in rural Southwest Wisconsin, even within each community, there was a lot of conflict and disagreement about how to approach COVID.
Laura and I are also in pre-production for what is going to be a three film trilogy for PBS about neurodegenerative diseases, and each film will focus on a different neurodegenerative disease and follow patients and caregivers for those patients with those diseases. See Jane Run is focused on a health care worker, and this new project is focused on a health issue. That remains our focus and passion.
What got you and Laura so focused on public health? Why do you think it is especially valuable to tell stories about healthcare through film?
We’re both the children of doctors, and so I think that we grew up with a lot of conversations about the problems of the healthcare system in this country. A lot of the time we hear about health and health care in this country as numbers or sensationalized health news stories. Documentary filmmaking really offers a depth that other mediums can’t. I think it offers a unique intimacy and a relationship that can be built between the audience and the people in the film, and really gets at the nuances of what it means to provide health care in a particular kind of community or the nuances of what it means to have a particular illness. Documentary film is a medium that can really do that and provide that three dimensional look that something like a news article or a news story can’t.
I was wondering if you would end by reminiscing about your experience at MNFF. Are there any favorite memories or stories that you’d like to share?
I love my VTeddy. It’s front and center on my fireplace mantel. Getting the award was super exciting, although even more exciting was what the Hernandez family wrote about the film that they read when they gave me the award. What they said about the film made it feel like all of the blood, sweat, and tears that go into making an independent documentary was worth it. I also had never been to Middlebury, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful time of year to be there. It was such a highlight of my festival tour, walking around the town, having a moment of calm in the storm that is traveling from festival to festival. And of course, I was a big fan of the Co-Op, and especially all of the cheeses. I actually might be passing through Middlebury a few weeks from now, and I’ve been thinking about revisiting the Co-Op on my journey. But really, overall, it was a wonderful festival. I would highly recommend it to any first or second time filmmakers.
**Interview has been edited for length and clarity.