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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

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Filmmaker’s work shows human capacity for change

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Michael Oved Dayan

Michael Oved Dayan recalls growing up with a camera in his hands. He was the family filmmaker, responsible for documenting his family’s events. Even though his passion for film quickly grew, he didn’t think he would make a career out of it.

His plans changed when he was finishing his master’s dissertation in communications at McGill University and decided to make a short biographical film called Glimpses of Heaven, about three West Coast Canadian artists who use their art to cope with childhood traumas.

The film earned him an honourable mention in the Rhode Island International Film Festival in 2008, and he was named best director in the Las Vegas International Film Festival in 2007.

“It fared much better than what I had imagined. It received a lot of great feedback from people who have felt inspired by it and that made me feel really good, knowing that I could participate in a meaningful conversation in life,” said Dayan.

Dayan, who grew up in Vancouver, completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto in conflict resolution, game theory and international relations. During this program, he spent a year abroad at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In Israel, he also interned in the department of human rights at the Justice Ministry.

After finishing his master’s degree  in religion, politics, peace and reconciliation at Columbia University in New York, he returned to Canada to obtain his PhD in communications from McGill University. 

It was while studying communications that he became interested in the way the media could be a therapeutic tool.

“Through filmmaking, I learned that helping people construct their life narrative really provides them with a therapeutic perspective on life,” he said.

When a friend told him about a medical clinic he had visited in Tibet, Dayan immediately knew he wanted to turn it into his next film.

“I have this mandate that I want to make biographical films and I want them to have a redemptive quality – to make films that show personal growth and human capacity for change, and I saw that in this town of Tibet,” he said.

The film, called High Plains Doctor: Healing on the Tibetan Plateau, follows Dr. Isaac Sobol, a Jewish doctor and chief medical officer of health in Nunavut, on his 10th trip to Yushu, a remote village in the Kham region of eastern Tibet, where he establishes a primary-care medical health clinic. The film was shot in 2007 in two locations: Iqaluit, Nunavut, and Yushu, Tibet.

“Isaac shares his reflections on what he’s seen treating aboriginal people in Canada and the similarities the people in Tibet are experiencing… like challenges in keeping pace with modernity. [For both of the communities], there have been so many changes in the way things are done that traditional ways are not sustainable.”

There is one “western” doctor for about every 17,000 people in Tibet, so Sobol and his team worked with very limited resources and attempted to treat the hundreds of patients who lined up every day at the clinic.

“People would spend a week walking to the clinic and then wait in line for hours to see Sobol. The problem with Tibetan medicine is that the changing climate affected their traditional herbs and medicinal plants, and during China’s Cultural Revolution [which purged Chinese society of many of its traditional and cultural elements], a lot of books were destroyed so the ancient medical knowledge has been lost,” said Dayan.

“They don’t have money to access doctors so you see conditions that would have been treated much earlier in Canada.”

Sobol did not know that this trip would be his last. On April 14, 2010, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit the town of Yushu, killing more than 2,000 people, injuring about 10,000 and destroying the small town.

Dayan believes his film is now the only existing footage of this village.

“About 80 per cent of the village was destroyed after the earthquake, and I haven’t been able to find anyone else with footage of this town,” said Dayan.

Dayan said he hoped to portray the exchange between Sobol and the inhabitants of the town.

“Sobol goes to Tibet to help them, but in the end he also receives a gift from them. They give him a sense of purpose. As a Jew, he feels like he can relate to the Tibetans because his family survived the Holocaust. There was this idea they weren’t meant to exist because of their religion, so he understands the Tibetans’ feelings of marginalization,” said Dayan.

The film premièred on CBC earlier this month. Dayan has already started working on his next film, called Abraham’s German Children, which looks at relatives of Nazis who have converted to Judaism.

For more information about Dayan’s films, visit www.helliwellpictures.com.

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