Directed by Steven Laws Documentary Film Review by Phil Slatter
That you may well never have heard of Stevens Johnson Syndrome (S.J.S) is in many ways the reason that Steven Laws' flawed but important documentary exists in the first place.
It tells the story of Jean Powe who, following a mis-diagnosis, was prescribed medicine that would lead her to contract S.J.S, a severe allergic reaction to medication that causes horrendous inflammation of the skin which can lead to blindness and, as hard as it might be to believe, much worse. While Jean Powe survived, it has left her house-bound, striving for the independence she once had.
Director Steven Laws subsequently undertakes a noble quest to educate people about S.J.S. asking strangers if they have heard of it, before telling them what it is, what causes it (medication including Ibuprofen, Telenor and Acyclovir) and subsequently the importance to ‘Educate before you medicate’.
While one can’t fault the intentions of Laws or his film, the repetitive use of the very same questions and answers makes the documentary very repetitive – while the interviewees are being informed, the audience is being told the same thing, time and again.
This leads us to ask more pressing questions that the documentary fails to really address – just how common is S.J.S? We’re told it is rare, the sufferers say it’s not but there are no facts one way or the other, no input from any healthcare professionals and no insight into why the disease is so unknown. Is research being done into it? If not, why not? While the strapline ‘Educate before you medicate’ is a fair comment, simply telling people that they can contract a hideous disease by taking medicines that millions consume daily feels like scare-mongering. It’s doubtful that this is Laws' intention, but what is needed is a further delve into the illness and the many issues surrounding it.
Jean Powe “Stevens Johnson Syndrome” Survivor does stay personal to the story of Jean Powe though and this is where the documentary film is more effective. While the reasons behind why so little is known of the syndrome may be because of the relatively low volume of people who contract it, this is of scant comfort to those who end up with skin blistering from the inside simply because they’ve had a reaction to medication. As Jean herself says ‘Only time a person will step up is when it happens to them’ and this is what prompted the filmmakers to make this documentary in the first place.
It’s a noble first step, but one that doesn’t get into the necessary details of where the work on S.J.S sits in the medical industries list of priorities, and more importantly why, to perhaps have the impact that is required.