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VIFF 2016 Interview: MIXED MATCH director Jeff Chiba Stearns

by Jason Whyte

"MIXED MATCH is an emotion-filled feature length documentary addressing the challenges faced by mixed race blood cancer patients as they struggle against almost impossible odds to find a close genetic match for a bone marrow and stem cell transplant." Director Jeff Chiba Stearns on MIXED MATCH which screens at the 2016 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

I am thrilled to welcome you to VIFF this year. Is this your first VIFF experience and will you be in Vancouver to attend your screenings?

My short animated film, YELLOW STICKY NOTES, screened at the 2007 VIFF. Since then I have attended VIFF almost every year since basing my self in Vancouver back in 2009. I am thrilled to be having the world premiere of my second feature length documentary MIXED MATCH at the 2016 VIFF. I will definitely be in attendance for both screenings! We will also be bringing the main subject, Athena Asklipiadis, up from LA so she can participate in the Q&A after each screening.

Tell me more about your early VIFF experiences!

My first VIFF was back in 1999. I had an instructor, animation filmmaker Marilyn Cherenko, when I attended the animation program at Emily Carr University. She made it part of her course to attend five films at VIFF that year. I remember struggling against this because as a broke student and I didn't have money to go see five films at VIFF. But I sucked it up and picked out five films. I still remember some of the films I saw and how impressed I was that the filmmakers and actors were there for the Q&A's.

The experience really stuck with me and I think this was the first film festival I had ever attended. Now I'm a huge film festival junkie who has probably been to over 200 festivals over the course of almost 20 years. It was really amazing when in 2007, my short YELLOW STICKY NOTES was officially selected to screen at VIFF. I definitely took advantage of my filmmaker badge that year and watched as many films, attended as many parties and drank as much free booze as I could! VIFF is a really nice sized festival with a good range of films. For two weeks you can really take your time and see the movies you want to see. It may not be known for being glitzy like TIFF but it definitely has it's own identity as being a film lover festival.

Would you say you had any inbetween screening tips for VIFF-goers?

I have to say one of my favorite things at VIFF is the Hospitality Lounge happy hour from 5pm to 7pm. It is a great place to go mingle with other filmmakers, distributors, press and festival programmers. They always have a local restaurant catering and the drinks are free so the conversation is always flowing.

If I am in between screenings downtown, there's usually only time for a slice of cheap pizza. But if you are catching a flick at the Cineplex International Village the food court there has some really diverse and truly hidden gems if you need a quick and cheap bite. If you're at the International Village food court just outside the theatre, you must eat at Bali Thai, which is actually Indonesian cuisine. It's the best Indonesian comfort food in the city. The food authentic, tasty, cheap, big portions and it's family run. The lady who serves the food is hilarious and always makes you feel like you have ordered the tastiest thing on the menu. If you're nice to her, sometimes she'll throw in a few things for you to try.

You are making me hungry. So how did this movie come together from your perspective?

I directed and executive produced Mixed Match. In 2010, I was contacted by Athena Asklipiadis, founder of Mixed Marrow, the only group in North America that specifically recruits multiethnic people to sign up to the bone marrow registries. After speaking to Athena, I had no idea about the challenges that multiethnic patients with rare blood diseases faced when trying to find a bone marrow transplant. What Athena told me was shocking, that finding a stem cell match for a multiethnic patient has been compared to finding a needle in a haystack, with one in a million odds.

For these patients, siblings only hold about a one in four chance of being a match and so most blood cancer patients have to look outside their families for a match. I realized that with multiethnic people becoming one of the fastest growing demographics in North America this was a topic few people knew about but a topic everyone should know about. So Athena and I teamed up and hit the road to capture the many stories we would use to create MIXED MATCH.

While you are working on a movie, what keeps you going? What drives you, creatively?

This documentary took six years to complete from start to finish. I was conceived in the summer of 2010 and finished in the summer of 2016. We shot over 200 hours of footage. Sometimes I had no idea where this film was going. All I knew was that there were many stories to capture. The quest to tell these patients' stories is what drove us. As well, we were motivated by the realization that this film could save someone's life.

Creatively, I filmed the majority of the footage myself which was quite fun. It was tiring but fun. I also edited the entire film, which took over a year. I would have liked to have had someone else edit the film but in the end, I realized I was the closest to the footage and I knew the story I wanted to tell in my head.

What was your biggest challenge with making MIXED MATCH, and how did you over-come it?

It's always challenging filming in hospitals because there are so many factors to consider. As a filmmaker, you have to respect the patient at all times and their health and safety always comes first. It is difficult seeing the subjects your filming with dealing with the affects of chemotherapy or radiation. It takes such a toll on their body and mind.

As a documentary filmmaker you always want to keep filming no matter what, but I learned a lot filming MIXED MATCH, sometimes there are times you just have to put down the camera. I became close to all our subjects and they became friends. It is always hard to see your friends suffering and in pain.

Sadly, one our subjects passed away during the making of the film. I didn't include his story in the film as his story was just too large but he was similar in age to me and had a lot of the same interests. Dealing with his loss was definitely the biggest challenge I had to deal with during the filming of MIXED MATCH. Although, his story really made me understand the true importance of why a documentary on this topic is so needed. It really helped motivate me to continue filming and capture more stories.

If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be? The moment where you thought you had something?

Every patient we filmed with left a lasting impression on me and it meant so much to have such personal access to their lives. Although, one of my favourite stories in the film is when we filmed our subject, Alexandria Taylor, moments after waking up from her bone marrow harvest operation. Alexandria had just donated her bone marrow to an anonymous stranger, a little girl somewhere in the US. Going into the operation, Alexandria was strangely excited and giddy because she knew the potential that she could be helping save this little girl's life. After Alexandria wakes up from her operation, her entire family goes in to see how she's doing.

Alexandria who is probably still a bit woozy from coming out of the operation just starts cracking jokes with her boyfriend and father. At one point she even starts twerking when she gets up out of the bed for the first time. Considering they had just drawn a few pints of bone marrow out of her hip, which can be a painful process, it is amazing she could even get up, let alone start dancing. I really cherish these lighthearted moments after Alexandria's operation because it helps bring a little humour into a film that is quite heavy at times.

I was really touched by Alexandria's willingness to help someone she had never met or may never meet. After seeing how excited and happy Alexandria was after donating bone marrow to this little girl, a complete stranger, it really helped put things in perspective for me.

I really liked the overall look of the movie, so I would love to know how you achieved the visual look of the film.

I started off working with Greg Masuda as my cinematographer but due to limited budget we had at the beginning and the fact Greg was busy working on his own docs, I eventually took over the role of DOP. Being an animator, I knew how to properly frame shots via storyboards and layouts so when it came time to compose shots, I was pretty familiar with what looked good.

I did reference a lot of other docs to get the overall feel and look I wanted. We also shot entirely with Canon DSLRs, which is challenging in itself due to trying to maintain focus all the time when you're running and gunning. Although, I really love the look of filming on DSLRs and the ability to choose various lens to achieve a nice depth of field. It was also handy shooting in low light and using a DSLR didn't draw as much attention as filming with a big video camera.

Also, because I knew I would be editing the film too, I made sure to film a lot of coverage. Maybe a bit too much at times! Digital cinema has definitely changed how much footage a DOP can capture which actually makes editing challenging if there's too much to work with.

Where is MIXED MATCH going to show next? More festivals?

MIXED MATCH has been accepted to screen in a few more film festivals coming up this November. So I will be touring with the film to five other cities over the course of two weeks. It should be a fun adventure. We are hoping to pick up some distribution along the way but I'm open to looking for alternate distribution opportunities. The film has a broadcaster in Canada so it will broadcast up here. We're hoping PBS might be interested in the broadcast cut down version of the film. These days, there are so many avenues to get your films seen and VOD and iTunes are definitely high on the list!

If you could show your movie in any theater in the world, which one would you choose and why?

I really love what the Rio Theatre is doing in Vancouver and keeping the neighborhood theatre idea alive in a time when neighborhood theatres are shutting down at a rapid rate. What's awesome is MIXED MATCH will be having its World Premiere at VIFF at the Rio! I am super honored. Plus, people can enjoy a craft brew while watching the film. That's pretty cool!

What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being overall disruptive during a screening of your film?

Of course talking or texting is the ultimate sign of disrespect. Especially, if the film's director and crew are in the theatre. I would expect one or two people being disruptive at a blockbuster movie but not at a film festival. True cinefiles should know better.

Luckily when I'm watching my own film at a festival, I will get to introduce the film so people know they are sitting near the director when I take my seat. Although, if someone sitting near me is being disruptive, I'll waste no time telling him or her to please be respectful of the people around them and it's distracting for people who are enjoying the film. It's always best to try to be polite at the beginning. It if continues, I have actually gone and had theatre staff come to deal with it.

There are many aspiring filmmakers reading us for our articles and reviews on If you could offer a nugget of advice to them on how to get their start, what would you say to them?

I'm also a firm believer that truth is stranger than fiction, which is why I love documentary so much. So write what you know and build in personal experiences and stories. As well, get used to rejection. If you don't have a thick skin, this is not an industry for you. Never take rejection as a personal attack on you or your work. It just means it didn't connect with someone. Perseverance is key. In this day and age of digital technology, it is so easy to go out and just start creating. Don't wait for someone to give you permission or money to make a film. Just start making art. If it is good, people will take notice!

And finally, what is the best festival experience you have ever had, and why?

As I mentioned previously, I have been fortunate to have attended over 200 film festivals and had countless memorable experiences including partying with Owen Wilson and Jake Gyllenhaal in Hawaii, having Albert Maysles in the audience watching my film in New York, standing two feet from Robert Din Niro at the Tribeca Film Festival and being to scared to say hello, winning a festival award and giving an acceptance speech in front of 2000 people in France at the world most important short film festival Clermont-Ferrand, teaching animation workshops in Northern Poland in the dead of winter, meeting my animation heroes face to face, making new life long filmmaking friendships and really just being able to travel the world screening my work at international film festivals for the last 16 years. It has been an amazing journey and you can see why I have become a festival junkie having had so many remarkable experiences! I would not give it up for the world!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2016 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from September 29th to October 14th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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originally posted: 10/05/16 03:17:48
last updated: 10/05/16 03:26:53
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