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Bennett and Sternoff screen new documentary for faculty and students

Medill Assistant Professor Beth Bennett and Adjunct Lecturer Michael Sternoff screened their new film, "Kindred: Life and Death in the Digital Age," as part of the January faculty colloquium on Wednesday. The film explores the power of the human spirit over illness, and tells the story of Kindra McLennan, a young woman who died of cervical cancer in January 2009.

“Even though cancer took her life, it never took her,” one of McLennan’s family members recalled at the beginning of the documentary. “She was still Kindra.”

This theme is weaved throughout the film by alternating the focus between McLennan’s blog that she kept while undergoing treatment and more recent reflections from her family and friends. Bennett and Sternoff, who was a personal friend of McLennan, said they hope to honor McLennan’s life and show how she fought the cancer with humor and honesty.

“We made the film to inspire everyone to see how people handle illness with an incredible amount of grace,” said Bennett, the documentary’s producer.

"Kindred" was filmed in Chicago, where McLennan and her husband lived, and in Belize, where they celebrated their wedding. Sternoff and Bennett began working on the film in the fall of 2009, and, after a hiatus in 2010, completed it in June 2011.

Following the screening, Sternoff and Bennett answered questions from about a dozen faculty members and students. Many attendees said they were impressed by the film’s storytelling techniques, which include direct interviews and taped conversations between McLennan’s friends and family. Sternoff, who directed the film, said he was able to get effective insights from many of the people he interviewed — particularly McLennan’s husband, Mark — because he knows them well.

Sternoff and Bennett sought to tell the story through dialogue, they said, and to take a different approach to documentary filmmaking that would avoid the kinds of clichés audiences have seen before.

“The film’s emotional balance really worked for me,” Medill Associate Dean Mary Nesbitt said after the screening.

It was difficult to figure out how to best present McLennan’s blog in the documentary, Sternoff said. Although he and Bennett auditioned actresses to narrate the blog, they ultimately decided to have one of McLennan’s friends read the entries aloud, as her voice sounds similar to McLennan’s and she was with McLennan through much of her treatment.

“It’s a very intimate film,” Professor Doug Foster said. “It so successfully tells the story from inside out.”

"Kindred" won “Best Documentary-Short” at the 2011 Illinois International Film Festival. WTTW, Chicago’s public television station, has picked up the film for its spring programming.