In the new documentary, Jim Allison: Breakthrough, director Bill Haney takes us into the world of a multi-faceted renegade of a man who has unexpectedly set new standards in cancer treatment.
“I had known of Jim’s work for some time,” said director Haney of the 70-year-old Texan who has relocated several times as his research has brought him to various scientific facilities. “Most of my work as a writer or writer/director has been on immersion subjects. In our polarized America, I was trying to find a story about things that united us that would provide a prism for inspirational things that we overcome.”
As Allison lost his mother to cancer, he made specific entreaties into the subject, though Haney realized he couldn’t deliver a film which strictly disseminated technical information.
“How do I translate Nobel Prize-winning science in a way that folks who aren’t scientists understand it?” Haney wondered. “He’s a very humble guy—he said, ‘why would anybody want to make a film about me?’ [However,] he shared the most intimate details of his life. His life has been changed by the documentary as much as my life has been changed by making it.”
Due to the death of his mother, Allison had avoided visiting his childhood home for 40 years, so media from Allison’s youth was scarce. Alas, in the sub-basement of Allison’s old house in Berkeley, California, Haney found three decaying metal canisters of film from the early-1950s.
“We couldn’t recover a frame, but we took it to a cinematographic craftsman who rebuilt the five-six seconds of film [we included] in the movie,” Haney revealed. “Jim saw the film for the first time, and saw his mother the first time, holding him, and he could tell how much his mother loved him.”
Working on Breakthrough for a year, Haney found the central story to both the film and Allison as a character. “We want to celebrate what happened,” said Haney of Allison’s incredible achievements in oncology, regarding how bodily cells interact and transport both beneficial and destructive biological material. “The ideas that emerged from Allison’s accomplishments have fundamentally changed the face of cancer forever. He kicked off a global revolution in thought—it fundamentally changed how it would be seen forever more for the immune system and disease.”
Ultimately, Haney intends his film to reach audiences who may not have essential knowledge about the world of science. “This among the most hopeful and inspiring American stories I’ve ever seen or heard of,” Haney detailed. “In these complex times, most of us need a chance to be re-inspired by the American dream and what America could do. This is the most inspiring kind of story that can come out of our beautiful country. Most people want a chance to have that kind of story in their lives.”
Jim Allison: Breakthrough will be out on DVD and VOD on December 24, 2019.