The camera's power
Updated : 03/06/2012 14:26 GMT + 7
Gary Tarpinian and his business partner Paninee Theeranuntawat first met each other at Loyola Marymount School of Film and Television in Los Angeles, California (America), many years ago. Sharing the same passion for creating high quality documentaries and non-fiction programs that both entertain and inform, the two founded MorningStar Entertainment in 1995.
After 17 years, the company has produced a variety of non-fiction programs in many categories - from history, and military, to science and law enforcement, for many famous TV networks, including the Discovery Channel. Gary is proud of having one of the finest teams of film makers in the documentary television business.
The American story
Since last November, Morningstar has been a familiar name to Vietnamese readers, after a group of filmmakers, headed by producer and director Andrew Nock, travelled from America to Da Lat to film Nguyen Duy Hai, and his difficult journey fighting for his life.
For more than 10 years now, MorningStar has been accompanying American plastic surgeon McKay McKinnon across the globe, filming his surgeries on giant tumor patients like Duy Hai. These shows have been gathered into a series named the “McKinnon files”, which have moved viewers around the world, actually saved lives, and brought hope to many patients.
“One of the first documentaries we made was about a removal surgery for an American woman who had a 90.7 kilogram tumor (200 pound) which we named The 200-Pound Tumor. No one thought this surgery could be done safely, but Dr. McKinnon did it because it threatened her life, and he succeeded.”
“As the documentary was seen around the country, many people who had similar problems either contacted us, or, they realized that there could be a surgical solution to their own problem. We believe that many people got help as a result of that show, so we have produced many more medical shows like that one, and they continue to lead to new people who need help, such as Mr. Hai, whose family saw one of our medical documentaries featuring Dr. McKinnon,” Gary said.
The Romanian story
The story that has left the deepest impression on Gary is Lucica Bunghez’s, a patient who had an 80-kilogram tumor, in Romania. Before Doctor McKinnon saved her in 2004, she was turned down by the top hospital in Bucharest, which said her tumor was too large to be removed safely.
“On the way back to their hometown, some four hours away, they stopped at a famous church to pray for a miracle. After they left the church, the woman told her family that she had a feeling that God was going to grant her a miracle! The family returned home, had dinner, and then turned on the TV to watch their favorite channel: Discovery Romania.
“The program that was on the screen was our ‘200 Pound Tumor’ show with Dr. McKinnon. The family could not believe what they were seeing, but within days, got friends in America to track down Dr. McKinnon - who then contacted us.
“We then helped bring Dr. McKinnon and his medical team to Romania, where they worked with Romanian doctors to remove the tumor. The woman now leads a normal life and is in excellent health. The part of this story that still gets to me on an emotional level is that the miracle she and her family prayed for… was seeing my first TV show with Dr. McKinnon,” Gary recalled.
Since then when patients contact MorningStar they will connect them with Dr. McKinnon or vice versa. Together with charitable organizations or individuals, they have opened new doors for patients thought untreatable by many, especially when their programs have been broadcast on big channels like Discovery, “which is now available in 210 countries and states”, Gary said.
MorningStar’s special passion for medical documentaries probably comes from its founder’s background. Before starting in the film business, Gary worked as an art therapist at one of the top children’s hospitals in his hometown of Boston, Massachusetts.
The filmmaker said he had always admired the devotion, the professionalism and the unselfish care that the hospital staff gave to patients 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
In 1999, Morning star produced a series for Discovery that was set in Chicago and called ‘Chicago’s Lifeline’, which showed the daily activities of a big city hospital, and “was our way of showing the world the great men and women who work in the medical community.”
Members of the MorningStar film making team in FV Hospital (Photo: Tuoi Tre)
The story in Vietnam
Not only a storyteller, MorningStar seems to have become part of the big picture and the story they tell when they take the initiative to bring the right surgeons to their patients, and at no cost.
They also donate travel and lodging costs to these patients, such as with Duy Hai. “We did some other things to help all three patients, [Duy Hai, Sa Ly and My Dung] but it’s not that important to note. We did not do these things to get credit or because we want anyone to thank us. We simply did what we could to help these people because we were in a position to do so,” Gary shared.
After Hai’s surgery was cancelled last November, MorningStar was determined to help him by renting him a first floor apartment in Ho Chi Minh’s District 2 so that he did not have to go back to Da Lat in his condition. Although efforts were being made then to find other hospitals for Hai, Gary said at that time they were not sure whether Hai would be admitted to any hospital or when the surgery would be done.
“All I can say is that my partner and I and all of us here at MorningStar were determined to help Mr. Hai. Though Paninee and I never met him, we really wanted to do everything in our power to help him. We always saw him smiling despite his difficult situation. He is a very special person with a good heart and a beautiful outlook on life. At that point there was no doubt in my mind that Paninee and I would never stop until we got him the help he deserved.”
Garry said someday he would like to meet Hai, Dung, and Ly in real life, not because he wanted to hear a ‘thank you’, but rather to thank them for allowing MorningStar to tell their uncensored story to the world.
The filmmaker said they felt a great responsibility in telling their stories properly and with dignity because they had all given them their trust. “I hope one day I might tell Mr. Hai that someone who was dying and without hope, saw our film on Mr. Hai and Dr. McKinnon, and now we are helping that person survive – thanks to Hai allowing us to tell his story.”
Asked what he expects of his viewers after they see the show, Gary said he hopes they are touched on an emotional level and that they learn something. “Sometimes we all look in the mirror and wish we were more handsome, or wealthier or more ‘special’. We often complain about the minor difficulties of life. So, when you see the plight of people who really have serious problems like Hai, I hope that viewers will realize how lucky most of us are for simply being ordinary,” he said.
And the untold stories
Having had years of experience producing TV shows, Gary admitted there were challenges in making medical documentaries, especially abroad. “We never know what’s going to happen next or how long it will take for the story to be complete.”
With main characters usually seriously ill patients, they want to show the condition and the surgery, but still have to present the patient with dignity and all the respect they deserve.
Although there are difficulties working abroad, because of differences in language, culture and customs, Morningstar’s owner said he and his team were constantly amazed at the great and talented people in each of the countries they have worked in.
“The friendships we’ve made with the medical staff – and the local television support team are some of the most gratifying aspects of our charge.”