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January 11th, 2018

Mill+ teamed up with Asthmatic Kitty Records for Sufjan Stevens’ moving music video 'Life With Dignity'. This emotional narrative directed by Adam Carboni, aims to celebrate the lives of those affected by cancer.

The film captures moments from the lives of Roland, Justin, and Theresa. They are all battling cancer, which not only threatens their lives but the livelihood of those around them. Roland is an 85-year old grandfather, a former jazz historian and Korean War veteran. Justin is an eight-year old student, two-time cancer patient and he loves Lego. Theresa is a 35-year old chef, a drummer and newlywed. All of them are facing the disease at different stages, and in different ways, but each is living their life with dignity.

The team was able to accompany them and follow their daily routine, whilst they attended appointments and chemotherapy sessions. We asked Director Adam Carboni about his experience pulling this film together.

How did the idea come to fruition, and how closely did you work with the artist to develop the story?

From the beginning, Sufjan/AK knew that they wanted a film that focused on the cancer experience. After considering a few different approaches, which included animation and more graphic treatments, they settled on the very documentary-leaning approach which I proposed. Typically, on commercial projects, we promise the clients something very specific creatively and then deliver a final piece that stays within 90% of what was promised. However, for this project, I specified upfront that our story and creative would shift and flow based on our patients’ experiences and real lives, which would steer the story down its own path. Sufjan and everyone at AK was incredibly trusting throughout that process and our liaisons at the Cancer Support Community were vital in finding our patients in a short amount of time.

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Tell us a bit about the emotional impact of shooting the subject matter, and how you achieved the unobtrusive documentary-style?

The process of filming was equally daunting as it was cathartic. With any documentary, you’re constantly pushing on certain doors trying to find which ones are unlocked while simultaneously discerning which ones need to remain closed. I always told the patients that I was there to shed light, not to exploit. Each day we simply set-out to capture moments that were honest to whom Roland, Teresa, and Justin were.

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How did your team collaborate to bring this to life?

We kept the team small and nimble for this production, as it was important to get to know the patients quickly, but intimately. Some of the most serendipitous moments occurred when it was just me and the patients and a camera. Our Producer, Danika Casas, was very understanding and respectful of that process, and lifted huge weights off my shoulders with all the tough logistics of filming in hospitals and multiple last-minute locations. The whole team was so willing and invested. Danika and my camera assistant Michael Girandola even jumped-in as extras in the dinner scene with Theresa and Samar!

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What were the technical and creative challenges of the project?

It’s always so difficult to learn so much about a person, and then have to communicate that to an audience in 4 minutes of screen time, especially when those are split three-ways. For me, the hardest part of making this film was finding the balance between emotion and exposition. I desperately wanted people to identify with these patients, but I also didn’t want to simplify their experience to a single quote or event. Editor Alex Trierweiler and I have done many documentary type projects together, and it was his keen sensibilities that ultimately balanced all three personalities without skewing too much toward any specific person.

>I have to give a huge thank you to Roland, Theresa, Justin, and all their families for allowing us into their lives and for standing as powerful symbols of humanity in the face such a dark and formidable disease. Against all odds, they truly stand as shining examples of living with resilience and dignity.

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The song appears on Stevens’ new mixtape ‘The Greatest Gift’, and is a remix of his 2015 Carrie & Lowell song ‘Death With Dignity.’ Sufjan Stevens is donating proceeds from the sale of the mixtape to support the Cancer Support Community, and you can help by giving here.