Diabetic Connect's Voices of Diabetes series gives members of the diabetes community the opportunity to share their personal challenges, insights, and life experiences with a larger audience. We hope these stories inspire and encourage you to find your own voice as a diabetes advocate. If you would like to share your story, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the Voices of Diabetes page on Diabetic Connect for more in the series.
Jenny Mackenzie, PhD, is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose mission is to produce films that create and promote social change. A recent film project, SUGAR BABIES was about the public health epidemic of diabetes in America’s children.
Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are on the rise and threaten to become a healthcare crisis in the next decade. Jenny understands diabetes personally because three generations in her family have been affected by type 1 (her aunt, brother, and 14-year-old daughter all have type 1). As Jenny began to research the film in 2009, she realized that the story of both types of diabetes that are ravaging our youngest generation needed to be told.
“SUGAR BABIES” tells the story of the two types of diabetes and highlights six family’s stories, as clinicians and health experts try to answer the question that has bedeviled us for two thousand years: why is there no cure for two types of diabetes that are now ravaging America’s youth?
Jenny's most recent film, “Kick Like a Girl,” aired on HBO, played at over 50 international film festivals, and is currently being used by the U.S. State Department to discuss gender equity globally. As clinician, researcher, former non-profit administrator, and mother of three, Jenny also uses her professional experience, humor, and passion to address the power of social impact film making as a motivational speaker. She has a BA from Brown University, an MSW from Simmons College, and a PhD from the University of Utah.
Q: You worked as a family therapist and nonprofit administrator for 20 years before getting into film. Why the switch?
I’ve always loved watching docs and believe in the power of social change through story telling in documentaries. When we moved to Utah in 1994 I became a Sundance Film Festival “junkie” and really turned into a “wanna-be” filmmaker. Then in 2005 I applied to the film studies program at the University of Utah, and decided to get serious. When you think about a career focused on social change, moving from social work to documentary filmmaker makes sense; you are just reaching a broader audience.
Q: What inspired you to make “SUGAR BABIES?”
My 14-year-old daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes 10 years ago. She was the third generation in our family to have type 1 (my brother and aunt also were diagnosed with type 1 years ago). Diabetes, and the two very different types of the disease, has always interested me.
Then once I was in film school, I watched lots of fascinating public health/food docs that looked at the rising rates of different kinds of diseases, as well as the changes in our culture with food consumption, lifestyle, and the kind of work and play we do. In January 2009, after watching many inspirational films during the Sundance Film Festival and then finding this incredibly poignant home video footage I shot when Lizzie was first diagnosed in the hospital (before I was in film school!), I decided to build a story around that scene and tell the story of the two types of diabetes that are ravaging our youngest generation.
Q: Why is visual storytelling – as opposed to other mediums – a powerful way to tell this story?
I have always learned by watching, and I think many of us are visual learners. When you see real people in real life, you have the opportunity to relate quickly through that visual medium. Then you can connect individually to the characters, or more globally to the issue.
Q: The film highlights six families and their stories. How did you meet these people? How did you get access to film their daily lives and share their personal health journeys?
Casting the film took time, perseverance and patience. We had a lot of support and encouragement through all of the many diabetes networks that now exist. We were lucky- every single person we approached to do a screening interview was excited about participating. I think most of us want to tell our stories, but we often aren’t asked. So when someone asks you to tell your story, and you have an active listener, most people share themselves in an open and honest way.
Q: What were some of the other challenges in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
The biggest challenge was having our characters in three different parts of the country and trying to schedule enough time in each place so that we got enough footage of their day-to-day life and challenges. The other challenge for independent filmmakers is always fundraising, and making enough money to produce the film. I am very lucky to have a hard working producing team, and some sponsors who really believe in telling the story of this public health epidemic.
Q: What are your hopes and plans for the documentary?
We hope that “SUGAR BABIES” will reach as big an audience as possible. A documentary focused on social change only creates a movement and change if it is seen. We hope that it will screen at many top film festivals across the world, then have a national broadcast premier, and then be screened through our educational outreach campaign at schools, community health and recreation centers across the country.
Q: What “lessons learned” from filming and spending time with these families would you share with someone else who has diabetes?
I have been touched and humbled by all of the kids and their families, and spending time with each of them has been a true pleasure. I think the biggest lesson learned for me is that that we all need to look out for each other; it takes a village to raise healthy children. Whether kids have type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes or no diabetes, we have to give them the tools that they need to live long, healthy lives. The food that we put on the end of our forks impacts all of us so much more than I ever understood.