Normalizing the conversation around medical marijuana in ‘Weed the People’

Abby Epstein brings to our attention a documentary about a subject few know to think twice about: cannabis as a life-saving drug. Having been marked as a schedule I level drug, it has had a bad reputation for the past 100 years. Blinded by this, we are turned away from any possible benefits that this drug could have. “Weed the People” follows a number of families who desperately look to cannabis as an alternative treatment to save their children from cancer. With her film, Epstein asks the vital question: why has the government put a ban on medical marijuana if it truly helps treat illnesses?

K: Congratulations on the win and nominations Weed the People has garnered so far. You came form a theatre background, what caused the switch to film and how does it differ for you?

A: Yes, I was directing Broadway and Off-Broadway shows for years until I worked on a play called “The Vagina Monologues.” (Coincidentally where I met Ricki Lake!)  I was traveling around the world directing the play in various languages and totally blown away by how it had inspired a movement to end violence against women. I suggested to the playwright, Eve Ensler, that we document some of the stories and 2 years later we premiered the film to Sundance! It was basically a trial by fire.  I was learning on the job.

K: Your previous works in film are all documentaries—why did you choose this form of filmmaking?

A: I sometimes feel like documentaries chose me.  I was never drawn to the medium and had mostly worked with scripts and actors – that was my training.  But I am passionate about stories that NEED to be told and there is a really exciting energy about capturing life as it happens with no idea where the film may be taking you.

K: Ricki Lake is one of your producers; how did you two meet and what made you decide to collaborate together?

A: I directed Ricki in the Off-Broadway production of “The Vagina Monologues” and we became friendly.  Years later, she had 2 children and had moved to LA and I stopped by to visit her there. I ended up missing my flight because she started sharing this vision she had for a project around midwives and natural childbirth and showing me a video of her home birth.  I was completely shocked and curious about how she made that choice. That is how our first collaboration, “The Business of Being Born” came about.

K: How do you choose your documentary topics (including your next film)?

A: Ricki and I work pretty organically and intuitively, inspired by personal experiences in our lives. With ‘The Business of Being Born” both of our birth experiences played into the movie. “Weed the People” started after Ricki and her husband tried to help a little girl who was suffering and undergoing chemotherapy.  Our next film “Sweetening the Pill” is back in the reproductive health arena.  It was inspired by Holly Grigg-Spalls’ book of the same title and the outrage we felt that so many women were suffering from side effects of hormonal birth control and nobody is talking about it openly.

K: What was the process of fundraising for this film? Were the supporters largely friends and family, or were there other organizations who were interested in funding the project?

A: We had 2 equity investors and we also did a large scale campaign on IndieGoGo. We didn’t want to take any money from organizations.

K: Your other film, The Business of Being Born, deals with the maternity care system in America, whereas Weed the People follows families with children who are suffering from cancer. With the latter being such a sensitive subject, how was the approach different and how did you recruit these families to agree to be part of the film?

A: The approach was similar in a sense because we were asking people to trust us to document some of the most vulnerable and painful moments in their lives.  We met all the families in different ways, but they all essentially found us – there was no “casting call” for this movie. It’s a pretty small pool when you are talking about children using cannabis!

K: Going into preproduction, did you know what the end result would be—that medical marijuana can be part of an effective treatment, or was the entire filming period a process of discovery on your end as well?

A: We didn’t know how any of the stories would turn out.  We only knew that the science looked promising and that these families believed it would help their children. We were really shooting blind in many ways, not knowing how any of the cases would turn out.  It was scary.

K: How long did you expect the filming to take and how long did it actually take? How did it differ from your previous documentary filming experiences?

A: We expected it to take 3-4 years and it took almost 6!  It was very different than other experiences because we had already started pre-production on our next film, so we were basically working on 2 films at the same time over many years which was intense.  We also didn’t know how long we would need to follow these children to complete their story arcs.  The first child we were filming ended up dropping out of the film, so after about a year of filming we basically had to start all over again.

K: As the director of the film, what would you like the core message of the film to be to the families of patients, to organizations, and to the government?

A: I would like to humanize this controversial and misguided thinking of the cannabis plant as a dangerous drug and and question why we all do not have the right to use this plant to heal ourselves as we see fit?  This is essentially a human rights issue.  We are denying people access to a natural substance that has incredible medicinal potential because of politics, racism and greed.

K: After seeing the movie, what next steps would you like audience members to take?

A: People should talk about this with their congressional leaders and their physicians and try to normalize the conversation around medical marijuana to make sure everyone can safely access it and afford it.

K: Do you have a message you would like to share with others about the being a female filmmaker?

A: Women are amazing at making films because we can manage so many elements at once.  We are born to multi-task!  It’s also an important time for women’s voices to be heard in both documentary and narrative films.  The world needs more female-driven stories right now.

(C) Katusha Jin (10/29/18) FF2 Media

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Katusha Jin joined FF2 Media’s team in 2017 whilst she was still a film student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. In 2019 she was the recipient of SCMP’s journalism scholarship and studied under the mentorship of an Oscar award-winning documentary director in Hong Kong. She went on to receive her master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong where she graduated with distinction. Katusha has previously worked in the advertising industry, and when she is not writing for FF2 Media, she can be found working on films as a director, producer, and writer. As a trilingual filmmaker, her experiences have cultivated an interest in the intersection between cultural diversity and creativity, and she brings that to her work both as a creative and as a critic. She is also a voice-over hobbyist, a fitness enthusiast, a student of comedy, and is always on the lookout for musical and theatrical collaborations.
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