Filmmakers Find Inspiration In Lyme Disease

Photo courtesy of Jessica Ingersoll-Cope and Kristin Tieche

Most of us derive a sense of identity from our work and creative pursuits, but what happens to our identity when that work is affected by a serious illness? Bay Area artists, Jessica Ingersoll-Cope and Kristin Tieche, teamed up to produce a film that addresses these issues. Jessica, a dancer, was diagnosed with Lyme Disease at the age of 28. Forms of Identification is a short film that explores the resulting identity crisis as she struggles with a physically debilitating disease.
I conducted a Q&A, over email, with Jessica and Kristin about the film. If you’re in the Bay Area, it will be screening at 1PIE WORKspace in San Francisco’s SOMA District at 1543 Mission Street on Friday, March 16th at 7 pm. It is part of a monthly salon, Bohemian Nights, hosted by Empowerment Works’ Artists-in-Action series.

The film was inspired by Jessica's Lyme Disease diagnosis. How did the two you first come up with the idea that her story could be translated into dance and onto film?

Jessica:

For me, the idea came from a very personal need to connect to dance as a form of expression since I felt so alienated from dance after becoming sick - like a prisoner in an unfamiliar, unreliable body. I wanted to make something at my own pace that was without the pressure of stage performance (and other's challenging choreography) and could pick up the subtle nuance of small, gestural movement.

Kristin:

I had always been an admirer of Jessica Ingersoll-Cope when she was a dancer for Kathleen Hermesdorf's MotionLab in San Francisco, as well as her independent work. Jessica is truly a creative soul, and one of my closest friends. So when she approached me in 2007 with an idea for a conceptual dance film portraying the crisis she was experiencing, I had no hesitation about collaborating with her. It was something we as friends - and artists - simply had to do together.

Photo courtesy of Jessica Ingersoll-Cope and Kristin Tieche

Do you feel that there is a lack of awareness about Lyme Disease? Have people dismissed your disease because they don't understand it?

Jessica:

YES, YES, YES. ABSOLUTELY. Lyme disease is truly an epidemic, nationally and internationally, (ilads.org and LymeDisease.org are good resources) and is vastly under recognized and under treated. Lyme Disease can be very difficult to properly diagnose and very expensive to treat as treatment is long term. It can be labeled as Multiple Chronic Infectious Diseases Syndrome because there are a host of co-infections and co-conditions that accompany Lyme Disease that affect every body system. It can also mimic many other illnesses. Because it is refuted by main stream medicine and the Infectious Disease Society of America, and thus there is a dearth of physician training (and minimal insurance coverage), thousands- if not millions -of people suffering go undiagnosed and left feeling crazy, alone, criticized, and very financially burdened...Which ever way you slice it, it can be extremely stressful and demoralizing. I have experienced all of this.

Was it emotionally healing and/or satisfying to make this film?

Jessica:

At times it has felt healing and, at times, it has provoked sadness and frustration. It was difficult to "perform" on shoot days when I didn't feel as well as I wanted to. It was vexing at times that I didn't have the ability to finish the project more quickly. It was (and still is) continually painful to accept my significantly diminished stamina and capacity for big and highly energetic movement...I feel proud and grateful that I found a way to connect to this particular way of creating despite my illness.

What are some of your favorite - or most fascinating - reactions to the film?

Jessica:

Several people have said that they can't see a difference between my pre (documented via archival footage) and post illness dancing in the film in terms of skill and effort. This is simultaneously complimentary and baffling. I have no objectivity, but the difference is very clear to me because I know on a visceral level how much more strain it put on my body to perform at even 1/2 of the level that I used to. But that we were able to convey, through the film, a sense of pulsating movement and purpose is great, whether the film inspires discomfort or emotional release or both.

Kristin:

The most touching reactions have definitely been from people who have Lyme Disease or know someone with Lyme Disease, because Forms of Identification touches upon a specific experience...

There was quite a poignant reaction from another female filmmaker, Nefise Özkal Lorentzen, whom I met at a festival in Spain where we screened the film. She said this: "There is no pretending in your film. It is mostly inevitable in art films, I mean the distance and the pretense. But in yours you make us naked. What happens if I lose my health and I am incapable to create and do my work. I can not answer this! It was her heartfelt response that reaffirmed that we have struck an existential chord when we ask the question, "How can I be me when I'm not me?"

Photo courtesy of Jessica Ingersoll-Cope and Kristin Tieche

Most women struggle with body image issues. What are the messages in this film that you hope women can take away with them?

Jessica:

Identity and self esteem are so wrapped up in how we look, what we are good at, what we do or produce in this world, and who we are connected to. I hope that this film inspires women to consider the idea the we are worthy and whole JUST AS WE ARE, without having to do anything or be anything we are not naturally I hope it reminds people that that even when we are sick, old, or "damaged" there is a light in each of us that is purposeful and lovable.

Kristin:This film is about searching for one's core identity, and the multiple layers of identity that we must unpeel to reach that core. Many women can fall into the trap of identifying themselves by the very outer shell of their physical appearance: "I am what others see." So they identify themselves with adjectives that other people might use to describe them. There is one line in the film that asks, "Who do you see when you look at me," directly asking the audience to consider how they would describe the character's identity. It is a particularly vulnerable part of the film, because the woman is looking at herself in the mirror as she asks this question to the audience, while trying to perceive the person she once was. The way others see us makes us all feel very vulnerable and insecure, when in fact, it's the inner core that truly identifies who we are. It is a place that is uniquely ours, and very powerful and unchangeable throughout any circumstance. This is the message of our film.

What were your biggest challenges in making this film?

Jessica:

For me, my wavering energy was the biggest obstacle. This was a fully grass roots, guerrilla effort. We had lots of support from our friends and families, but our financial resources were extremely limited. We were also both working on the project only as we could (with busy complicated lives), so we created the film in fragments and chunks. Given these circumstances, I'm impressed with the job we did as I feel the film has a cohesive and logical arc.

Kristin:

To me, the biggest challenge was time. Jessica was undergoing major life-changes resulting from her illness, and her physical condition limited her to the amount of time that she could actually spend shooting on location. So over the course of a couple years, we shot an hour here, an hour there. This is very unlike most film shoots, which often are done in a handful of 16 hour days. We definitely didn't have momentum on our side. But we stuck through it. We never gave up on our idea, and we are proud to have participated in five film festivals to date and to share this important story with the world!