Life's Too Short: Mariam Jobrani's Journey with Cancer in 'Everything Must Change'
Filmmaker Mariam Jobrani had a reasonably thriving career in documentary and reality TV. Then in April 2010, everything changed: She received a diagnosis of breast cancer, at age 40. She and her former partner in filmmaking and life, Kenny Krauss, began to document this transformative event, while working on other projects, and three years later, when the cancer progressed to Stage 4, the filmmakers committed full-bore to capturing her life-altering journey—one that takes her to India and Brazil, deepens her bond with her family and with her native Iran, and opens her heart and her mind to the world she would eventually leave.
Jobrani and Krauss showed a version of Everything Must Change at IDA's first DocuClub screening, back in July 2016. They finished the film this past March, and on August 13, Jobrani moved on to her next journey.
Krauss, the co-director and co-producer, and Jobrani's brother Maz, the executive producer, will present the film this Sunday, October 15, at the ArcLight Hollywood, as part of IDA Board President Marjan Safinia's ArcLight Documentary Series.
We caught up with Krauss by phone as he was readying his film for its world premiere. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I want to talk about the dynamic between you and Miriam. It's been somewhat complicated over the past decade. You were partners in filmmaking and in life—you lived together for seven years, as she documents in the film. Then you broke up, yet you maintained your filmmaking relationship, and you remained friends.
Kenny Krauss: Very much so, yeah. When we broke up was right around when we had The Fighting Cholitas at Sundance—the end of 2006, basically, but we stayed pretty much in touch. We were both working a lot, in reality TV and in different parts of the country. When we would get back in town, we actually started up some documentary projects that we never finished.
I assume you started Everything Must Change when she was diagnosed in 2010.
Well, it wasn't as clean cut as that. I was working in Las Vegas on a Home Makeover show when I got a text from her about her cancer. As soon as I got back to LA, I went to go see her. I told her, "I want to help you; I want to be here for you." And then we thought, "Let's film it. Let's film these doctors' appointments; let me film what it's like to go through all this."
At first, we weren't sure that we were going to make it into this film at all, really. This was April 2010, when I started shooting with her, and about July we met a nurse at Cedars when Mariam was getting her port put in and that woman turned us on to her story. We actually started making a feature documentary about this nurse, with a producer helping us out when Mariam was too sick to do it. That's what we were doing that whole year of 2010: chasing after this nurse who had developed a pen-pal relationship with a man who had killed somebody, and she married him.
It seemed that when you were living together and beyond that, even if you weren’t making a documentary, you were documenting each other's lives.
Now that footage from 11 years earlier, that was an unlabeled tape that was sitting in a box of tests and little bits of things that I had shot over the years here and there. When I'd get a new camera, who would I shoot? I'd shoot Mariam; she was right there. We had actually completely forgotten about that footage. So when we saw it, we were like, Holy shit, this really says a lot, and this is going to be a great bridge to bring everything together here—the Iranian story, our story and then the bigger story.
With the diagnosis in April 2010 and as the stages progressed from there, at what point did you determine, "I think we are making a documentary here"?
It's when the recurrence happened in 2013. The doctor said, "Your blood is no good, the blood work is scary, we need to do a scan." They determined that the cancer had come back and that she was Stage IV. That was really a radical shift because since 2010 Miriam had made changes. She was eating better and taking care of herself, but she was going back to work that she had before the cancer and I was, again, working in Vegas on that home makeover show and she called me and told me what had happened.
She really wanted to make this into a documentary now because otherwise we just had footage from 2010. We had all these hours and I was kind of frustrated. I'm like, Are you kidding me? I shot all these appointments, all these things and you don't want to make anything out of it?
But I certainly understood that she didn't want to look at and log tons of footage; she wanted to move past this. But in 2013 she said, "Let's pick this up again, even if I have to shoot this myself because I know you are busy in Vegas. She would try to rope me into things, of course, and so I said, "Okay, look, we are going to do this together, but I'm going to get you a better looking camera." She was shooting stuff on her iPad and all that.
So, I wanted to get a camera that would look decent, but that would be user-friendly for her and that she could carry around when she went to Brazil and India. She had gone to Brazil once before the recurrence and then right after the recurrence she went back to Brazil again, and that's when I was on board. The Vegas part was over and I shot her whenever she wasn't in Brazil. I went to Brazil with her the third time and that's when I shot a lot of the B-roll and stuff that you see and many other times.
It seems that once you had determined in 2013 that you should really document this and look at the footage, your role, as it were, really amplified. You were not only her good friend, but you were the co-director, you were the DP, but you were also an on-camera participant. Talk about the challenges of reconciling these very different, but somewhat interchangeable, dynamics in creating this documentary. You had basically four roles.
I think to be honest the first and most important role was as caregiver and advocate for her and to do anything I could to help her. If there was a choice between putting the camera down and helping her, clearly, I would help her.
But it's a tightrope. A lot of days she wasn’t up to even talking about the film. It's a matter of being patient on my part and waiting for the right moments. We had been gathering footage, and it wasn't really until the end of 2014 that we were working with our first editor , Yuki Aizawa, and at that point we were still combining the nurse documentary story and this cancer healing story. It hadn't even really become Everything Must Change yet. That was in November 2014 when it split off and Yuki was able to craft a scene.
We were like, "Holy shit, we have a movie here! We really have something!" I'm a participant in the film, so it's so hard to face the footage, and it's hard to get a good angle on yourself, to be objective and to tell your story.
We needed that third person, so we worked with Yuki first, then she wasn't available in the beginning of 2015, so we started up with Cyndi Trissel. We worked with her in 2015 for a good four months and really were able to shape the first and second acts. With Yuki, we really just dug into that first act, and we got all this going by the end of 2015
In 2016 we met up with Tamara Maloney, our third editor, and we were in her back yard editing pretty much all of 2016, did our Indiegogo campaign in the summer and raised enough money to keep working with her and to finish it.
Mariam's brother died suddenly…
In 2014, yeah.
I would imagine, particularly when her brother died as you were deep in the process, that must have really deepened your resolve to make this documentary. Talk about that.
Within a few weeks after he passed, we went to Brazil for the third trip, and I don't think I would have gone along with her and I don't think we would have gone with the same kind of purpose.
She really did want to go and find some meaning or find some way to get through or to process the fact that he had passed. And, yes, I do think it picked up momentum and more purpose, for sure.
The theme of being an immigrant and the deep connection with family courses through, without necessarily dominating the film, but it's a very important subtext. With the loss of her brother, preceded by the loss of her father and her parents getting a divorce in the '90s, how did that impact her thinking about various themes of her life and incorporating that into the narrative?
In the actual act of making the film, she went through all those tapes. It wasn't like their family would sit around and watch old videos or that anybody had access to them. Nobody had looked at them in 20 or 30 years. And so, she went through the tapes and watched them and logged them. Those were some tough evenings when I would leave her; we would edit during the day and then at night she would log one of the tapes each night for ten nights. It would stir up a lot of stuff for her and it was very powerful.
I think in 2013 when she got the diagnosis, the doctor told her flat out, "You are going to have a very short life." And it panicked her, but it also made her want to turn over all the rocks and make sure that she made peace. I think telling the story of their migration to the United States and what they went through has been a bit of her life's mission.
It impacted her a lot. She is very proud of where she came from, and they didn't come here because they were looking for a better life. They came here without really wanting to. Back in Iran, they all lived on the same street, everybody was all very close together, and so I think they are trying to mimic that or mirror that here in America still.
You mentioned funding before and you had an Indiegogo campaign. Was that the primary source of revenue?
We paid out of pocket for everything. When we would do gigs, we would have a little bit of money and we'd hire maybe Yuki or one of these editors for a week and get back into the film a little bit.
Or we'd beg our family for a little bit of money and we'd try to negotiate with the editors, things like that. Really, we were deeply in credit card debt. But I was passionate about the film from 2013 on and I just really wanted to stay with it. I had no idea how long it was going to take.
We had been out of pocket and on our credit cards and so when we did the Indiegogo campaign. It's kind of a personal thing, the cancer and all that, and even though we are telling this story, she was reluctant to go and ask for money. But it was really one of the better things we did. It was really great to get the feedback, and it was great to have people coming on board to help us.
Right around that time, we had our first public work-in-progress screening that Marjan Safinia had facilitated through the IDA at the Echo Park Film Center, and again that gave us a big shot in the arm, to get feedback. We had only been showing cuts to very close people.
I want to talk about the Indiegogo campaign. How did you present the film? What was the log line?
The log line was this: "Facing a life-threatening illness has irreversibly changed us both. This uplifting documentary explores themes such as the quest for meaning when faced with a life-threatening illness and the healing power of true love and friendship."
Making the film was therapy for Mariam. When she wasn't well enough to go through regular reality shows and all that, working on this project was a creative outlet and a cathartic way of processing the whole situation.
Getting back to the work-in-progress screening, with the feedback, what did you find was most surprising?
Maybe some clarity things that we wanted to address when we went back to editing. I was impressed that the film was resonating. I thought that people got it and they reacted well.
When you went back into the editing room, what were some of the things you did to fix the film, coming out of that screening?
I think the thing that we worked the most on was the voiceover. It was so important to Miriam to get the words just right and to get just the right feel, so we probably had 200 unique little voiceover sessions where sometimes we'd be editing and we would have to go record a line, record a little this or a little that. That was something we did a ton of and the next day [after the screening]we were in there swapping out some lines of VO, just to clarify.
You ended the film on a note of hope, when she’s looking out at the ocean. When you were in the production process did you say, Okay, I think we've reached a point where we can go back to the editing room and finish this?
Basically I think the thing that really drove us was the film is framed by two key meetings with her oncologist—the scary, bad meeting with the oncologist when her mother and brother are there; that was in 2015. To answer your question, we went in for that good one in 2016, in the beginning of 2016, when we are high-fiving and she's getting the scores that she wanted. That's when we said, Okay, let’s hire the editor, let's do this. I don't care what it takes, we are going to get the money, we've got a film now, because we had those two oncologists.
And she passed three months after you finished the film.
In March of 2017 we finished the film. By the time we had finished all the titles, by the time we had finished the sound mix and all the final music came in, everything came in a little longer than we thought. It was really around March or April when we sent the link to our Indiegogo folks.
She passed in mid-August. In those final months, did she feel she wanted to go back to the editing room and incorporate things, or did she feel that the film is finished, I'm at peace, I can let this film go?
It was a little earlier than that. It was more like in the beginning of July, basically when it became clear what was happening with her health. It wasn't clear at all in February, March, April; we didn’t know what was going on. I went with her to get blood drawn because she had a tummy ache and that’s where we saw her cancer markers were up and then we went in for a scan and then the liver biopsy, and it all started going downhill quickly.
We never talked about an epilogue with Mariam or changing the film at all. As far as she was concerned, the film was done and the film was what it was. She always felt, "I want to wait until I'm healed to put this film out. I don't want to put out a film and say that this is healing me if I don't feel really good." That became a harder and harder thing to do because she started feeling less and less good, over these last few months here.
With the idea for an epilogue, when she was really fading in the hospital, I thought, I have to do something to this film now to address the fact that she's gone. That was a bit of a process to figure out what that would be. The only real direct conversation about the outcome of the film was that I invited Marjan over here to my place where Mariam was staying in early July when it looked like she was going to pass quickly, to talk about the film and the future of the film.
Marjan had her ArcLight series and she wanted to maybe run it earlier and it was something we talked about, maybe if Mariam was feeling well enough, she would go. I liked the idea of giving Mariam something to look forward to, so that's why I encouraged Marjan to come over and to talk about that with her.
And then in the next few days, we realized that she wasn’t going to be up to it and that we would wait until October.
Following its world premiere screening at ArcLight Hollywood on October 15, Everything Must Change will be available on iTunes on October 23.
Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine and documentary.org.