The chance to chronicle a teacher's battle with multiple sclerosis while learning documentary movie-making and earning a slot in a new film competition — it all came together for 18 students at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute with their nonfiction short "Health, Interrupted," selected for the first Baltimore High School Film Festival (4-6 p.m. Thursday at the Charles).
The 12-minute film shares its title with the candid blog that the teacher, Kate Hooks, 33, has written since 2004. Her tough-minded posts chart the physical and emotional toll of the inflammatory disease that, in its progressive state, increasingly attacks muscular coordination and speech. By 2011, Hooks writes in "Health, Interrupted," it took her "20 minutes to put on a pair of mittens in the grocery store."
Hooks found the prospect of being interviewed for the camera infinitely more daunting than sharing stories about her life on-line. "I'm not self-conscious about what I think and what I write," said Hooks, from her home in downtown Baltimore. "I am incredibly self-conscious about my body — I cannot find the words for how self-conscious I am about what my body has turned into."
When students asked her permission to put her life on film, "I was very flattered and touched, and I immediately said yes," Hooks said. "But I definitely did not think it would become a big deal. I thought, okay ... I would have a chance to share my inside world with some kids I'd taught and some I hadn't. If somebody had told me that day that it would screen at the Charles as part of some Maryland high-school film festival, I don't know if my response would have been so immediate."
On the other hand, Hooks calls the documentary "amazing."
It took shape in the film and video class of Dr. Maureen O'Neill, Poly's full-time librarian, who covers film history and appreciation as well as production. When she realized that her students "associated documentaries only with things you could watch free on-line," O'Neill decided to show them "Music By Prudence," the 2010 Academy Award-winning short documentary about Prudence Mabhena, the disabled Zimbabwean singer-songwriter. "I tried to break down for them what made it an award-winning film," she said.
For Ayanna Williams, who graduated Sunday, "it was an eye-opener." And when O'Neill told the class that local talent (including co-producer and editor Patrick Wright, chair of MICA's film and video arts department) had helped make "Music By Prudence," her eyes opened even wider.
In early February, O'Neill suggested that her students collaborate on a documentary entry for the inaugural Baltimore High School Film Festival. Williams said Hooks came up as a subject not just because, like Prudence, she's bound to a wheelchair, but because, again like Prudence, "she writes and tries to take care of herself and be a good teacher, as well."
O'Neill managed to get four iPads for the shooting and an iMac for video editing. The class interviewed Hooks' doctors, caregivers and family members. "We went to Ms. Hooks' house and filmed what she had to do in the morning to get ready," Williams said. "When I was a freshman I remember seeing her driving up and getting out of her car herself, maybe with a little help. Now, the MS is taking over her life. Her caregiver must transport her. But she's such a positive person, you would never know. That's why we love her so."
Hooks recently won the first teacher of the year award given by Poly's writing center, for integrating composition with history lessons. But she won't be returning to the school. Later this month, she'll move into her parents' home in Ithaca, New York. (Her father also has MS, which for him turned progressive only recently.) Her medical insurance does not cover a full-time caregiver, so she's going on disability insurance. Apart from the financial challenges, "I've learned I can teach in a wheelchair," Hooks said. "I've learned I could teach without writing on the blackboard. But I don't think I can teach without projecting my voice, and my ability to do that has been going."
O"Neill hopes the film will help Hooks' friends and colleagues raise funds for her future. One goal is getting Hooks better voice-to-text software so she can more easily continue writing. Hooks' last blog entry, on December 25, 2011, was typed by a friend
Williams, who will study public health at Syracuse, said working on the film taught her "not to take anything for granted. Brushing your teeth or hair or cooking for yourself — so much stuff people take for granted, Ms. Hooks would love to do. She's an athlete, she ran track — now she's confined to a wheelchair. That's got to be a huge shot to the ego. But she is one of those people who always has a bright face, always has a positive attitude. Don't take anything for granted. That's my biggest lesson."
If You Go
The Baltimore High School Film Festival
Time: 4-6 p.m. Thursday, June 7
Place: The Charles Theatre, 1711 N. Charles St.
Admission: FreeCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun