By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Canadian director Jeff Chiba Stearns, of mixed Japanese and European heritage, shot a feature documentary, “One Big Hapa Family,” and a number of animated shorts, including one rendered entirely on Post-its, before and around his new feature documentary, “Mixed Match.”
But the new film, about the difficulties of finding mixed-race donors to contribute bone marrow and cord blood to fight disease in mixed-race people, started out, at least, as a more personal mission and pondering.
“I was asked to join the national bone marrow registry back in 2007,” Stearns remembered, “with the hope of helping a young Vancouver university student battling leukemia. Although, at the time, I was busy and didn’t even know how to join a registry. Therefore, I never actually signed up. It turned out he went into remission with chemotherapy, but I had always felt guilty for not trying harder.”
A few years later, though, Stearns got a message from the Mixed Marrow organization, dedicated to finding blood marrow and blood cell donors for multiethnic medical patients. The founder, Athena Mari Asklipiadis, wanted a documentary covering this challenging topic, and thought the maker of “One Big Hapa Family” was the right man for the job.
Asklipiadis, who has Japanese, Greek, Italian, Armenian, and Egyptian blood, has long been aware of challenges that hapa folks and families face. She became a donor activist after losing an aunt to lymphoma in 2007, and shortly thereafter met Krissy Kobata, a young hapa lady struggling to find a donor after being diagnosed with a potentially deadly blood disorder.
The Mixed Marrow founder, Stearns remembers, “pitched me the idea of a documentary that focused on this little known topic of the challenges that multiethnic people face when trying to find a stem cell match. Athena runs the only group focused on recruiting potential multiethnic bone marrow donors for searching patients. We met at a film festival in San Diego and the rest is history.”
The film took six years to complete and took Stearns all over North America. He watched people who couldn’t find donor matches get sick, and sicker, and sometimes die. “We were very happy,” he affirmed, “that many of the stories we captured had happy endings, and patients found their matches.”
Asked about his biggest surprises during filming, he mentioned learning that umbilical cord blood can now be used for stem cell transplants. Stearns filmed his wife giving birth to their child, and they were able to donate the baby’s cord blood to the Canadian Cord Blood Bank.
“We filmed the birth,” he added, and it becomes an important part of the film.”
The filmmaker emphasized that anyone healthy could conceivably be a match for someone else, whether or not that person identifies as mixed-race, and that joining a database is as simple as taking a quick mouth swab and filling out a form.
“Creating ‘Mixed Match’,” he elaborated, “was a great way to be able to explore the topic of being mixed-race with a different approach within the medical world, all while being critical about how we use racial language in medicine. It’s crazy to think that our ancestry can be a reason why there are challenges to find a stem cell match.”
Stearns hopes people will watch the film, of course, but the website, mixedmatchproject.com, includes a great deal of extra content, including scenes that he had to leave out of the final cut of the film (he edited down over 200 hours of footage for his final 90-minute cut). He also included a page where people can find stem cell registries all the world over, if they’re interested in learning more about how to join, or how they can volunteer to help.
“We’ve also had a lot of people who said they joined the registry after just seeing the trailer online,” concludes Stearns. “So even if we end up saving one life with ‘Mixed Match,’ that will have made this entire seven-year journey all worth it!”
“Mixed Match” plays Feb. 24th at 6:30 p.m., at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave. Be The Match, a diverse bone marrow registry, will host a marrow drive at the Festival. For more details, visit seattleaaff.org/2017/films/mixed-match.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.