"Alive in Detroit": Health care documentary to shed light on a complex system, through storytelling

Semmeal J. Thomas is behind a somber-looking podium in front of his congregation at City Covenant Church in Detroit’s Brightmoor community, serving a potent Sunday dose of prayer, enlightenment, and teachings. Today the pastor is incorporating his thoughts on the inequities of the current U.S. health care system into his message.

“There are levels of care so it's like Bentley care, then it's Lexus care, and you just keep going on down the line to bus stop care [...] and the quality of care you receive impacts the chances of recovery, and I thought the system shouldn’t be like that,” Thomas tells his congregation.  

Thomas is one of the main subjects of Shiraz Ahmed’s upcoming documentary “Alive in Detroit”, which chronicles several Detroiters struggling to battle chronic illnesses with inadequate health care insurance or no health care insurance at all. The film was inspired when Ahmed assisted his own mother as she battled a health care crisis.

Filmmaker Shiraz Ahmed wants to empower Detroiters through his documentary "Alive in Detroit". Photo: Kahn Santori Davison.

“Ten years ago my mom was laid off at the height of the recession and she lost her insurance,” Ahmed says. “At the same time my grandmother was just starting to take ill so my mother took care of her.  Everything was going fine until my mother got sick and we discovered she was in the advanced stages of a heart attack.”

Ahmed and his family had to help take on the emotional and physical responsibility of taking care of his mother along with some complicated decision-making. 

“A lot of it was her needing the heart surgery while she was uninsured,” the filmmaker explains. “We thought that would bury us in debt. She fell into this gap where because she wasn’t 65 yet, she couldn’t qualify for medicare. But between 50 and 65 you'll incur the most expensive health care services of your lifetime,” Ahmed says.

At the last possible moment, her debt was forgiven but the experience of navigating the quality and quantity of health care while being uninsured opened Ahmed’s mind up to the many Americans that share the same struggle. 

Shiraz Ahmed speaks with health care officials and medical staff for his film, "Alive in Detroit".

After his research and activism, he describes Detroit as a microcosm of American health care flaws. For example, he discovered that a 2015 report shows only one primary care physician serves 41,168 residents in the Brightmoor service area, where the population has a poverty rate of nearly 31 percent. Federal standards for a region with this poverty rate alone would be a primary care physician-to-population ratio of one to 3,000. Ahmed plans to compile and present updated statistics that translate the data in a clear way for his film, which he hopes to debut next winter.

“The central goal is that I want to use the film to train people on how to have a conversation about healthy communities and what is needed with public officials,” Ahmed says.

“A lot of people don’t know how to tell their stories, they don’t know what to ask for. I want to show people that it can be broken down, in a way that relates to your actual life.”

Shiraz Ahmed conducts interviews for his film, "Alive in Detroit". Photo supplied.

Thomas went down the same road as Ahmed's mother. He discovered he had heart issues after a blood pressure test during a free health care fair hosted by his church. He didn’t have health insurance at the time and found himself at the mercy of the hospital system. The fair served over 10,000 Detroiters and saved his life in the process. 

Thomas is on the board of Covenant Community Care and believes “Alive in Detroit” can be an informational tool for the community and to health care professionals.

“It made me start to champion this whole conversation about healthcare,” Thomas says. “To me, film is one of the ways you can teach. Different people learn in different ways. Film is just this great media to help bring to life what people are dealing with every day.” 

“There are people at home right now using home remedies because they’re scared they don’t have any money to go to the doctor. It just shouldn’t happen.” 

Ahmed, a journalist and photographer by profession, has taught himself the filmmaking process over the last decade. His 75-minute documentary requires a $260,000 budget, which comes from a combination of grants, crowdfunding campaigns, and community support. His Kickstarter campaign successfully raised over the $15,000 he asked for, and he hopes independent investors will join the campaign as well.

The team for “Alive in Detroit”, which includes Desmond Love (director of photography), Eleanore Catolico (associate producer), Karalyn Kiessling (researcher), and Myron Watkins (camera operator), is entering the post-production phase this month. One of the most challenging aspects, Ahmed says, has been ensuring the film is digestible and relatable for everyone. 

Shiraz Ahmed talking to a member at City Covenant Church about their health care situation. Photo: Kahn Santori Davison.

“I want to inspire people because I think a lot of health care films are negative, depressing, and pessimistic. I want people to feel empowered to take control of not just their own health but community health,” he says.

Ahmed also wants the film to be a bit of “edutainment” that's more inviting than preachy. The film will be critical in its approach, but there will be an organic elucidation that happens as the stories are being told. Of course, he has his own opinions for solutions but feels there is more value in the conversation that will come out of the content being presented. For that, he’s leaning heavily on Thomas and the others he’s chosen to take part in the documentary.

“I wanted to find people whose stories carried themselves but also illuminated the stories I wanted to make,” he says. “Trying to figure out visually how I wanted the film to look was really hard because people think of health care films about being in hospitals.”

Photo: Supplied / Alive in Detroit.

Ahmed plans to shop the documentary to film festivals and streaming networks alike but the ultimate success would be to see the film used as a meeting point for decision-makers in the health care industry, patients, health care activists, and citizens who are fully insured as well.  He plans to organize a series of screenings followed by panel discussions.

“Part of the artistic vision is that I want people to cross over and see some of these places. Because if you’re insured you would never have to go into any of these free clinics and see the state of it,” he says.

Ultimately Ahmed knows the health care flaws in the U.S. are not something a film can solve, but says that using our natural sensibilities and the resources we already have is a good start.

“Our values and what we would want if we build a system that actually feeds our needs...we need a wider movement to push for that change.”

Photo: Kahn Santori Davison.