Ahead of its Australian premiere at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, I recently had the opportunity to see A Billion Lives, the documentary feature film debut of director, Aaron Biebert. The subject matter is likely to be controversial, and I must confess to having started writing this article on numerous occasions, looking for the best way to tackle the material. Let’s start with a straight-up account of the film.
Across it’s 95-minute running time, A Billion Lives presents a complex argument about the impact of vaping or eCigarette technology that can be essentially broken down into two distinct tiers. The first key argument presented is that vaping technology has the potential to be a significant development in helping people to quit smoking, allowing users to move away from cigarettes to an electronic nicotine delivery system through which they can reduce their nicotine dosage over time. The benefit of this is that, while nicotine may pose some lesser health risks, it is not carcinogenic like many of the other ingredients and processes involved in smoking tobacco. Biebert makes a good case on this front, although looking through the various research quickly becoming available on the internet, it’s fair to say that scientists still have a great deal of work to do in understanding the risks and rewards of this technology.
The second argument presented is that the presence of this industry disrupting technology has been seen as a threat by both the tobacco industry and anti-smoking industry in the United States – the former for obvious reasons, and the latter because the application of this new technology as an aid in quitting threatens to cut into the sales of other products like patches, gum, etc. For this reason, it is argued, both industries have worked hard to squeeze this product out of the market. A case is made to suggest that those parties who have a vested industry have proactively sought to dismantle the vaping industry and misrepresent vaping technology as having health risks equal to or worse than smoking itself.
A quick review of the Twittersphere is enough to reveal just how passionate the debate is around this topic, and around this film. I spent some time talking to director Aaron Biebert about his new documentary A Billion Lives.
Tell me a little bit about your background?
I started a company about six years ago called Attention Era Media, and we’ve been doing a lot. About half of our work has been about commercials and commercial storytelling, and the other half has been doing work for non-profit organisations. Helping people with inner city issues, education and that sort of thing. This was actually our first theatrical movie… our first big full-feature documentary. We wanted to keep pushing our projects to the highest level and this was the next step.
So how did you come to decide on this particular topic?
This project developed out of some discussions that I was having with my friend after being kind of ignorant. That’s how we got to this point.
Conversations about vaping?
Right, yeah. I used to make fun of these guys. I used to say things like, “You know what, why don’t you just smoke the real thing or quit?” At one point I saw something on the news that said vaping was worse than smoking. So then I started being even more ignorant and I’d say things like, “Well, it’s even worse for you, how dumb is that? You look dumb and you’re being dumb,” that kind of stuff.
My friends then showed me some information demonstrating how that study was done fraudulently. These guys explained to me that they’re trying to quit smoking, and there’s a lot of money in cigarettes and so I start to become alarmed because I know what a lot of these big, multinational companies have done in the past, with our food, with medicine, with the military and so on.
If there’s one thing that you want people to take away from the film, what would that be?
It would be that we all make judgments based on news headlines, and we all have these ideas in our head about what we think based on very short bits of information. We all need to reconsider what we think is true, if we don’t do the research. In this case, a lot of people look down on these people using vaper technology like it’s some sort of a hobby or a joke. In reality these people are trying to save their lives, and it’s something that I think we as a society need to support. It’s been kind of embarrassing for me to look back, but hopefully we can all use this as a way to have a new conversation and a little bit more respect for our neighbours. That’s pretty much my main feeling about it right now.
We reached out to hundreds of people that you would think would care about people’s lungs and cancer and just general health. The American Lung Association, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and the CDC and the US Food and Drug Administration. All kinds of people. Most of them were not interested in being interviewed, which is surprising to me… although not surprising I guess. You’d think if you were a lung association, or a cancer society, that you would be here to fight lung cancer. These guys were not interested, and that made me even more suspicious.
But we did end up hearing back from some people, some who happened to be amongst the most prestigious doctors in the world.
Dr. Delon Human was the Secretary-General and CEO of the World Medical Association, and Dr. Derek Yack was the Executive Director of the World Health Organisation. Those two were the pioneers of fighting smoking. They came up with all the rules that Australia and the rest of the world are following for the most part. And here they are now saying, “We were kind of wrong, we didn’t think about what other technology might be able to help with this situation and we actually were advising people incorrectly.” It was fascinating to have those guys on camera say that.
What’s the reception to the film been like? I can imagine different people would react in very different ways.
We had a debate on one of the national New Zealand radio stations with a researcher in this field. She’d seen the film, and she said the only thing she could find fault with is she wishes we would talk about patches more and some of that kind of thing. Really, the movie’s not about patches, and so I’m okay with that criticism. She said she thinks we’re actually right, and so a lot of people are actually starting to change their mind. The New Zealand government came out not very long after our movie and said that they were willing to reconsider… they were going to be rethinking the whole ban that they have.
I know that the people that don’t like the film are publicly not saying anything about it, they’re going to just probably work behind the scenes to minimise our impact. We’ve had people working against us at film festivals.
We did a private screening for members of US Congress last week. Some of the people there were saying, “You are going to make a lot of enemies, I hope you know that.” That was kind of chilling, that kind of scared me a little bit, but I guess if I can help save even a million lives, it’s probably to me.
Do you see yourself doing any other feature films in the near future, or is this the sole focus right now?
I think that making this film, we had a lot of really troubling information coming out that we weren’t able to put in this film just because it was already getting too long. We are going to make another film, assuming that this goes well, called, The Problem With Big. It’s going to focus on how big money interests are really getting in the way of our lives all over the world and changing cultures and making people less healthy, and really focusing on this relationship of money and politics.
Which I think is troubling when in some cases people respect some of these institutions, but they’re corrupt and people like Australia need to ignore what the Americans are doing. They need to have their own conversation about what’s the truth, and they need to have their own research because we can’t trust these American institutions, they’re corrupt. We will be making a movie about that.
This might be a contentious or edgy question, but I guess, when you go through a process like this as someone in advertising, and you look at who some of your clients have been in the past… does that make you think twice about anything?
I’ve come to this position in my life where if I need to worry about what my clients think about what I’m saying, then I need to find different clients. I’m okay with that, We’ll lose some business for sure. We work with some pretty big companies; they may not be comfortable with this message. I’m okay with that. We have enough demand for our work that I think we can pick and choose who we work with. I want to work with honest companies, and so if they don’t like what we’re saying in our honest message then I don’t want to work with them.
The one question I have to ask. Is this project funded independently? There were no vested interests involved?
Right, there’s no money from any outside organisations. We have a pretty successful production company and we decided to make the film ourselves. It was kind of a side project, almost.
Tickets for A Billion Lives are available at: http://www.moshtix.com.au/mdff
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