Executive Producer Neil deGrasse Tyson (docu-series COSMOS and New York Times best-selling Author) and Academy Award Nominee Director Scott Hamilton Kennedy (THE GARDEN, FOOD EVOLUTION, FAME HIGH) are on tour promoting their latest feature-length documentary ‘Shot in The Arm’. Produced by Scott Hamilton Kennedy, Mark Monroe (ICARUS, THE COVE), and Mark Steele (HOWL, THE INTERPRETERS), Shot In The Arm, a critically renowned documentary world premiered earlier this year at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, and will launch its theatrical release in New York City at the iconic Angelika Film Center on November 2nd, fully releasing on November 3rd, and in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Cinemas on November 17th.
Given the bigger conversation that continues to be a great divide, we couldn’t walk past the opportunity to speak to the filmmakers.
‘Shot in The Arm’ is an important film that started long before the COVID-19 outbreak as a documentary about vaccine hesitancy and recent outbreaks of Measles – a disease that we have eliminates by year 2002. Embarking on this independently – funded filmmaking project, Kennedy began investigating a global measles epidemic and filming with top public health officials–including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, MD; Karen Ernst; Dr. Paul A. Offit, MD; Dr. Peter J. Hotez, MD; Blima Marcus, DNP –as well as rare verite and interviews with anti-vaccine activists – like Robert Kennedy, Jr. (charting his part in Samoa’s tragic measles outbreak of 2019 and as he continues to garner GOP funding for a Democrat presidential bid today), Andrew Wakefield, and Del Bigtree – who were persuading parents by the millions to refuse vaccines for their children.
Then COVID-19 happened. Acting quickly, Kennedy shifted his directorial eye to this once-in-a-century tragedy, as his family was caught in the maelstrom of COVID-19. Both skeptical and hopeful, SHOT IN THE ARM explores the cultural zeitgeist of vaccine hesitancy historically and in the context of the current COVID pandemic and how disinformation is its own disease.
Due to the fact that the documentary was re-written as the COVID-19 took its reign of the world, the edit does appear a bit patchy. But one must look at the bigger picture. According to filmmakers, this film is about vaccine hesitancy as much as it is about the dangers of trusting charismatic but incompetent people. Due to the timeline of the documentary, some experts’ commentary is blissfully unaware of the impending worldwide pandemic, and so, the film serves as a beautiful snapshot in time and allows some insight into the workings of the mind of scientists before the pandemic.
The film also does a great job at trying to discredit the thought-leaders in vaccine hesitancy movement but is not entirely built on it. Full of personal accounts and scientific opinion, this film paints a powerful picture about the nature of human psyche. It challenges us to think who we can trust. It takes maturity and humility to – does every charismatic presenter know what they are talking about? will sadly unlikely persuade those hardened vaccine sceptics. It is unlikely they will even watch it or watch it with open mind. But the filmmakers believe that this film has a long shelf life.
While the jury is still out on both safety and efficacy of the experimental COVID vaccines, this film should definitely be reckoned with. It tries to remove sensationalism and clickbait from the discussion and therefore deserves a place in the top ten documentaries released recently.
We sat down with the filmmakers for a quick interview.
Q: Tell us about the difference between making a film about measles and making film about COVID-19, How was the shift for you in terms of how do you plot the story, how do you find the funding, and what’s the difference in public interest?
Scott: We started in 2019 making a measles film looking at why we were having outbreaks of measles in the US and around the world, in pockets that had been misinformed about the measles vaccine. We thought we had an important film with interviews with Dr. Fauci, Dr. Offit, Dr. Hotez, and some of the icons of the anti-vaxx movement. Then covid happened and it was a big switch for everyone. We filmed in lockdown, doing zooms and including my family, which I had never been interested in before. We humbly tried to make it about every family and what we all went through – the frustrations but also the inspired commitment.
This story is about the history of Public Health really, about vaccines and disease but the subtext is more of a human story about how any of us treat each other and what decisions we make around things like vaccines that aren’t just decisions for ourselves but decisions for our community and the the whole planet.
In terms of funding, this film was funded independently from generous donors and investors. We had some for the measles film and got more during covid, as the spotlight on it being about covid probably helped find more investors.
Q: How did you find rewriting or reconceptualising the film as you were filming it and it was changing focus?
Scott: Editing is re-editing, you have to do it over and over. We brought in collaborators like Neil as story consultants to help fine-tune it. I even do rough screenings with friends to get honest feedback on what’s working or not. It’s an exhausting but brilliant craft making documentaries, especially editing them.
The pivot to COVID-19 opened up entire other storylines to explore, like what was happening in homes, the politics, the role of charisma if someone with a platform is telling you what you want to hear versus what is objectively true. So the film took on whole other directions, which I think magnifies its significance.
Q: Neil, how did you get involved with the film?
Neil: Scott and I were working on another film before about the misconceptions surrounding GMO food where I was a script consultant and also a narrator. So when Scott said he had a new project on vaccine hesitation and asked me to look at the script and a rough edit, I agreed without hesitation. My role is thinking about how people learn and feel empowered by what they’ve learned. I had comments as an educator about scientific statements – do we need more evidence to support them? And that’s been my role. I started as script consultant and then since ‘no good deed goes unpunished’, I ended up being elevated to executive producer. With title come different responsibilities and different time commitment – to help make sure the right audiences see the film.
Q: What part of the film should vaccine opponents see, if they’ll only watch 5 minutes?
Scott: As Neil says, “You can’t use reason to argue someone out of a position they didn’t use reason to get into.” But if they would want to watch, I would point to the Samoa scene from 2018-2019.
Neil: That scene is powerful and self-contained. It shows who anti-vaxxers took advantage of a tragedy and made it even worse leading to a huge measles outbreak of 5,000 cases and almost 100 dead babies. Thankfully the Prime Minister who started off not getting vaccinated and then seeing this outbreak changed his mind. He got vaccinated got the rest of the country vaccinated and they stopped it but the anti-vaxxers had a very dangerous influence. One of the influencers being Robert Kennedy Jr who visited the country and really fermented even more fear and confusion. The interview with hims is also very powerful.
Q: How did you engage with and interview anti-vax activists?
Scott: I treat them the same as anyone, with respect. I say I’m making a film about public health and vaccines, wanting to get all sides, and that they clearly have a voice in this conversation. With Robert Kennedy Jr, I didn’t tell him about the Samoa questions ahead of time. You can see him squirming, trying to justify what happened there.
Q: Do you think the documentary will age well and what do you hope it achieves?
Neil: In all I do, I try to create content with high shelf life, abstracting it to lessons beyond the immediate story. This film focuses on the human story threading it together, so even as we move on from covid, that will remain relevant. This film is about the human condition. And I hope it will age well. If this film had come out a year ago, I don’t think it would be as effective. I think it’s going to continue to be more effective as we get distance from COVID. The more distant you are the less you will focus on COVID and the vaccine itself and the more you’ll docus on the human story.
Scott: I hope it makes people check themselves – with humility and maturity – for their own biases. Be skeptical of charismatic leaders telling you they’re right and everyone else is wrong. What conclusions you come to should be verifiable, not just based on feelings.