Nancy Iverson: From Pediatrician to Movie Producer - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Nancy Iverson: From Pediatrician to Movie Producer

Scene from the documentary, "From the Badlands to Alcatraz." Scene from the documentary, "From the Badlands to Alcatraz."

Several of the filmmakers that I've interviewed for the Hearts and Minds Film Festival have been relatively young, in their 20s, fresh out of film school like the prestigious NYU. Most of whom knew from a very early age that filmmaking was something that they were destined to do. It was their calling.

Then, there are filmmakers like Dr. Nancy Iverson. Her calling wasn't filmmaking. Making movies was not her destiny, not something she dreamed about doing as a little girl. So, how is it that she's listed as a filmmaker of a near hour-long film playing at this film festival?

Iverson is a pediatrician. Her calling was medicine, not movies. She's worked for over 20 years in the field of health. She's won numerous awards to that effect. Her major contribution has been the creation of the nonprofit organization, known as PATHSTAR. Though she lives and works in San Francisco, her home is in South Dakota, which is also home to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Pine Ridge is the eighth largest Indian reservation in the United States. Unfortunately, it is also the poorest. The unemployment rate is more than 80 percent. About half the population, which the tribe estimates as being 45,000, live under the poverty line. Many can't afford electricity or running water. The infant mortality rate is five times the national average and the teenage suicide rate is four times higher. All this, and the life expectancy there is also the shortest in the country.

Faced with these startling statistics, Iverson felt compelled to help the only way that she knew how. No, she couldn't change the economic and even racial conditions that keep Pine Ridge as poor as it is, but it's been proven time and time again how poor economy lends to poor health. Being that she's ever the health professional, Iverson thought if she couldn't attack the cause then she could at least attack the symptoms.

Through PATHSTAR, traditional methods were used like youth mentoring and educational programs, including ones on nutrition. Yet, while her organization was doing its best to help the health of the Lakota, Iverson herself was suffering from severe back pain. She found swimming in the icy water of the San Francisco Bay was perfect therapy.

Swimming became such a daily exercise that it was almost no question that she would want to share it with the Lakota. There were already swims and triathlons associated with Alcatraz, so Iverson patterned hers along the same lines. Richard Iron Cloud, a Lakota educator and advocate, made headlines in 2003 when he became the first to complete Iverson's Alcatraz swim.

At that point, Iron Cloud became a beacon of hope, not only for his people but also for the country. Iverson recognized this in Iron Cloud, seeing that he could be a guiding force to encourage more Lakota, and not just his own children, to dip their toes into unfamiliar waters and perhaps better their health and lives. Having worked in hospice and palliative care situations, Iverson had also seen the power of mixing medicine with art.

Iverson had always been taken with photography and she was particularly impressed with filmmaker David Drewry whom she'd met in conjunction with her hospice work. Unfortunately, when it came to Iron Cloud, she missed her opportunity to capture that initial lightning in a bottle, but the effect that the swim would have on other Lakota who accomplished the swim, specifically young Lakota, could be just as moving.

She hired David Drewry and brought him on to document the whole experience. Thus was born the movie project From the Badlands to Alcatraz, a hour-long documentary that chronicled a few young Lakota attempting to make that awe-inspiring swim and that would be the beacon for motivating the Lakota in Pine Ridge to better health.

Iverson said she had no clue how to produce a movie and while she wanted to do this, she didn't want to start a production company. She knew that movies could really open people's eyes to things they needed to see. One example she cited was the documentary Super Size Me (2004). She showed that doc to one of her PATHSTAR groups, and the segment showing how food affects behavior became a big light bulb moment for that group. 

I told Iverson that the director of that 2004 Oscar-nominated film, Morgan Spurlock, started a TV series the following year called 30 Days, which literally made people walk a mile in another man's shoes. Spurlock felt that taking people into the experiences of others would be the ultimate enlightening and empathetic move a human could do. Iverson agreed that that's what she wanted her movie to do also, to take people into the experiences of these Lakota, as a way of enlightening and empathizing with them.

No, Iverson never went to film school. No, she never had an interest in movie making. No, she didn't involve herself too much in the technical aspects, the actual shooting of it, but she's just as much the filmmaker as Spurlock or any other documentarian. Documentarians are a different class of filmmaker. No, they're not in the same league as James Cameron or Steven Spielberg, but they're just as important. They seek to open people's eyes to something, to inform, to enlighten and to empathize.

As long as you have those qualities and the motivation to organize people around you to accomplish the goal of laying it down on camera, that's all you need to be a documentary filmmaker. That's who I believe Iverson is, if even for only this one time. Sometimes, documentarians come with the unlikeliest of backgrounds. In her case, it was pediatric care. Yet, it doesn't matter. In the end, she's still a movie producer. 

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