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VOL. 123 | NO. 22 | Friday, February 1, 2008

Award-Winning Filmmaker Tells Little-Known St. Jude Story

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"All the hundreds of stories that have been done about St. Jude ... the school department never got the headlines. I like stories where you feel like people don't really know about this, and you can use the camera to show them something."

Craig Leake
Documentary filmmaker
University of Memphis assistant professor of film
Winner of two Mid-South Emmy Awards for "The Chemo Ate My Homework"

Documentary filmmaker and University of Memphis film professor Craig Leake won two Mid-South Emmy Awards last week in Nashville, Tenn., for his film, "The Chemo Ate My Homework," a look at the teachers who work for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

Leake won awards for best documentary/topical and best director/non-news, helping the U of M become the only university to win in multiple categories.

Pleasantly surprised with his victories, Leake also was happy that the story of this dedicated group of educators garnered more publicity for a hospital that works tirelessly to end childhood cancer and other catastrophic diseases.

"All the hundreds of stories that have been done about St. Jude, naturally most of them have focused on the medical side, because that's what they do," Leake said. "The school department never got the headlines. I like stories where you feel like people don't really know about this, and you can use the camera to show them something."

School remains in session

Leake used his camera to show viewers a side of the hospital many don't see. When St. Jude patients are forced to miss school while receiving treatment at the hospital, they are offered education services through the St. Jude School Program.

Dennis Medford, a friend of Leake's who works for the program, told Leake about how the teachers at St. Jude help sick children stay on top of their studies in the midst of grueling chemotherapy or radiation.

Leake was immediately drawn to the unique nature of this academic setting, which is in the hospital basement and involves more one-on-one teaching than classroom instruction.

"The teachers tell the kids, 'Just because you're in for a treatment for cancer, that doesn't mean you get away with not going to school,'" Leake said. "So they supply some bit of normalcy. That's what kids do - they go to school."

The half-hour documentary shows how the students and the teachers bond during a time of grave physical and emotional hardship - but also the hope and joy that abounds at St. Jude. He captures the ups and downs that teachers in typical schools don't deal with on a daily basis.

"The classroom becomes kind of a sanctuary from the needles and white coats and the rest of the world that the patients are facing," Leake said. "And when it doesn't turn out well, I was interested in finding out how do the teachers manage. We all face periods of grief, but how do they cope with a job that requires so much grief day-in, day-out? I don't know if I found the answer to that, but it certainly is interesting to hear them talk about it."

Whole story told

When Leake began working on the project, he faced numerous hurdles with the hospital's privacy issues and other red tape such as needing to have a public relations person on hand. Leake also had to fight the hospital's desire to have mostly positive press.

"They don't like to emphasize the patients that they've lost, so they had to be willing to tolerate that the program was going to deal with both the successes and the losses," he said. "The only way you could really understand what the teachers were up against and why the job takes a toll on them is to be aware that not all the patients survive."

Leake lifted the film's catchy title from a conversation he had with Medford during the filming. A child undergoing chemotherapy had told Medford that he hadn't completed an assignment, and Medford told Leake that he joked with the patient, 'Oh, sure, I've heard that before - the chemo ate your homework, right?'"

The film originally aired on WKNO-TV several times and will appear on other PBS stations this year. The Mid-South Emmy Awards weren't the only honors for "The Chemo Ate My Homework"; it won a CINE Special Jury Award as Best Independent Documentary Short, among others.

Challenge sought

Leake received his undergraduate degree in journalism and his master's degree in radio, television and film, both from then-Memphis State University. He spent years working as a documentary film producer for NBC News in New York and ended up working for all three major news divisions.

After 20 years in New York and 10 in Los Angeles, he decided to return to Memphis three years ago to start teaching.

"I was looking more for the joy of educating and helping coach young people to do the job," he said. "The airports became less fun, I wanted to travel less. I wanted to think about the big picture instead of always meeting a deadline. At my age and station in life, it's ideal to be in front of students and having them challenge you."

His next project, which is in the editing process, deals with infant mortality in Memphis. Leake is working on the film with another award-winning filmmaker, U of M communications professor David Appleby.

For Leake, it provides another unique opportunity to tell the stories of a community that too often go untold.

"Documentary filmmakers always like to use the camera to show you another world," Leake said, "and this certainly fits that description."

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