In mid-November 2011, British film director and producer Andrew Nock travelled to Vietnam for the first time. With him went cameraman Michael Ojeda and soundman Joe Egan, to film Nguyen Duy Hai’s and later Sa Ly’s and My Dung’s story, whose surgeries were performed by Dr. McKay McKinnon.
Between then and early January 2012, Andrew has gone back and forth between the two countries three times, and also stopped in Thailand to film another tumor patient being helped by the doctor.
Working in the field
When in Vietnam, the team closely followed Duy Hai and his family, documenting their difficult journey as they fought for his life.
When Hai was transferred from his hometown of Da Lat to Ho Chi Minh City in an ambulance, they were right behind in their rented van; when Hai was examined and staying in the hospital, the team was “camping” outside.
They always looked hurried but professional, incredibly focused and did not miss any details of the story. There were days when they worked 14-15 hours a day, yet the men were rarely seen late or complaining.
Such a hectic working schedule is not unfamiliar to an experienced filmmaker like Andrew, a film producer and the director of Morningstar Entertainment in Los Angeles, California (America).
Born and raised in the UK, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of becoming a filmmaker, “partly because I love travelling and being immersed into different cultures.”
For more than ten years, Andrew has written, produced and directed dozens of shows about historic military battles, celebrities, ghost hunters, food, science and fashion models for The History Channel, Discovery and even Playboy TV!
“Being in this job, you need to be able to be flexible enough to document many subjects to keep finding work,” he shared.
Andrew joined MorningStar Entertainment in April 2011 to produce a series about weapons through history entitled, “Triggers: Weapons that changed the world”.
As the show enjoyed a good reception, Gary Tarpinian and Paninee Theeranuntawat - the two founders of Morningstar - offered him the opportunity to document Dr. McKinnon’s work with some new patients.
By then, after over a decade, the “McKinnon files” series was well known to viewers. It must have been a professional challenge and opportunity for the young filmmaker to embrace a new genre, namely medical documentaries.
Andrew’s first assignment was to film Ed Port, an American man from Ohio who suffered from Neurofibromatosis (NF) and had a large tumor on the right side of his face. Then came Aum, a young girl in Thailand who also had a disfiguring NF facial tumor.
Andrew said although Aum’s family was very poor and she was denied education by the State for many years, the girl studied at home and won a place to study computers at a vocational school for the disabled where she is now studying.
“But she was painfully aware that people might not want to hire her because of her face. Dr. McKinnon performed a 10 hour surgery with local doctors in Bangkok, removing her tumor and rebuilding the structure of her face,” Andrew said.
Aum’s operation almost never happened, because of the historic floods in Bangkok. But fortunately in the end the hospital finally agreed, knowing that this might be her only chance to be operated on by Dr. McKinnon.
Before coming to Vietnam for the first time, Andrew recalled that he actually had some worries. “I had never been to Asia before, never mind a city like Da Lat which seems quite remote, where some people we encountered said they’d never seen a white person before!
“In the US, some still believe that Vietnamese people dislike Americans because of the war. So, we didn’t know what kind of a welcome or reaction we would receive. At the beginning, I think I made sure people knew I was English, not American just in case they’d be mad!”
And then there might be negative reactions from Hai and his family to them filming his serious condition and his everyday existence and activities.
Yet all of these worries soon disappeared, as Hai, and then Sa Ly and My Dung and their families were “really welcoming”. They opened themselves up to the crew, shared their thoughts and allowed them to capture even their most private moments.
Travelling intensively and meeting many people, Andrew said Hai, who he spent the most time with, had left him the strongest impression.
“He has such an amazing attitude towards life and he can be quite poetic and wise. I know that everyone who will watch the documentary will be impressed and motivated by his spirit.”
The most memorable moment for Andrew was when Hai learned last November that the surgery would be cancelled.
Despite his deep disappointment and hopelessness, realizing his last chance for a normal life was slipping away, Hai only said to Dr. McKinnon ‘I pray that in another far away country where there is a patient just like me, but healthier, that with your own hands will please pick up the knife and operate on them. Rescue them so that they can find a way to live life, heading towards the sunshine.
“It was incredible for him to be so selfless at that moment. He was so strong, he was the only one not in tears,” said Andrew with admiration.
After travelling back and forth between Vietnam and America, the team has filmed about 60 hours of Duy Hai’s story. Andrew will have to write and make a 1-hour film for The Learning Channel, which is famous for its highly educative content.
This time must be a bit more relaxing for Andrew, after countless inter-continental flights and long working hours in the field.
Though he loves his job, there were times when he felt tired of the endless travelling.
“I was in Sweden last year to work on an episode of Triggers, about military rocket launchers. But traveling can be very tiring. We traveled from Los Angeles to Sweden to film for only one day, then came back.
“I wish we had more time to see the countries and meet the people, but the deadlines and budgets are always tight. Oh, and getting up very early in the morning too! That is normal when filming.”
With what they have shared and gone through together, it seems Andrew and patients like Hai have more in common than just making a film.
Going beyond a normal working relationship, the filmmaker must feel a strong compassion and respect for these brave people, who have been unfortunate in their illnesses yet are so determined to live a life with dignity.
Although they will need a translator to understand what the other says, it seems they have made friends for they have shared and gone through the most difficult moments together.
One is moved by seeing the crew put away their cameras and equipment and throwing themselves to hug and shake hands with Hai’s family and doctors the day Dr. McKinnon came to say good bye to leave for America after his successful surgery.
One and a half months later, Andrew said he still e-mailed Hai’s family everyday and “want to keep in touch with the man for many years to come.”
As much as he wants to see My Dung again to see whether she has pursued her dream of becoming a hairdresser and if her life and her outlook on life are improved, he wonders how Sa Ly is coping with her recovery.
With Hai, Sa Ly and My Dung’ images to be broadcast to the world, Andrew hopes others will have a greater understanding of patients like them and that their stories will inspire and motivate others, and bring hope to those who think there is no way out.
Gaining a new appreciation for the disabled and their everyday battles, the filmmaker says producing the series has been a life-changing experience for him.