Jasmine “Jaz” Gray is just a woman from Memphis who came to MTSU for undergraduate studies in 2006. She pursued journalism and wrote for the Murfreesboro Pulse in her freshman year. In 2010, she graduated and continued immediately in pursuit of her master’s degree in TV and film production.
Gray is also afflicted with Arteriovenous Malformations (AVMs), a rare, tissue-destroying defect that can cause facial deformities, seizures, strokes, blood clots and, in the worst cases, death.
There is no cure for AVM, but Gray knows someone who is in pursuit of one. Dr. James Suen, who treats Gray, is trying to find a cure for the defect before retiring. This inspired the MTSU graduate to use her journalism and filmmaking know-how to create More Than Skin Deep. The documentary will capture the stories Gray has collected after 32 surgeries and the stories of others with the defect in order to raise awareness and show how ultimately, as Gray says, AVMs don’t define who you are.
The Murfreesboro Pulse was happy to speak with one of its former writers and find out how the film is coming along.
How did the film project get started?
The day before my thirty-first surgery, my doctor told me that he was on a mission to find a cure for the disease before he retires in a couple years. So I started to think, since I was at home and doing all these surgeries anyway, what if I used my education to start documenting what’s going on with this disorder and what he’s trying to do? From there, it just expanded. He told me he would have to do one more surgery, which was my thirty-second and hopefully my last, but when I found out about that surgery, I decided to get some help with filming. After that, I decided to start raising some money so I could really tell the stories the right way with the right quality, getting videographers and making sure that we make it something that will have a really big impact and let people know not just about the disease, but about these amazing stories from people that are living with it and still succeeding despite having AVM.
Can you explain a little about AVM?
You’re born with the disease, but it doesn’t really start to get bad until you hit maybe 12 or 13. Once you get to that point in your life, it really starts to take off and destroy veins, destroy tissue, destroy organs and really just anything that’s in its way, depending on where it is. It was mainly in my cheek, my tongue, my chin and lip. All those areas began to grow and get distorted. A lot of my muscles and my face got infected, so I had to have a lot of that removed as a teenager, have parts of my tongue removed and also just had to have surgery after surgery to keep everything under control. There isn’t a cure right now, so basically all they can do is try to control it so you can continue on with your life. If it’s in your brain, you can have a stroke. I know of a couple people who passed away because they had aneurisms and bleeding issues in their brains. I’ve had bleeding issues too. Bleeding is one of the main side effects. So much blood is flowing through that wherever the AVM is, it can just get out of control. You can bleed cups of blood. A lot of times it’s like that.
Are you looking for people who will take part in the documentary, or right now are you just focused on raising money?
I’m doing both. It’s funny how the more people find out about the campaign to raise money for the documentary, the more people get the confidence to come forward, come out of the shadows and contact me to get involved in some way. I’ve had lots of people tell me their stories so they can potentially be in the documentary, and also, they’ve been helpful doing question-and-answer sort of things for my website so people will know about the different things patients have gone through. It’s helped me shape what the documentary should be and what I should be sure to include, and it’s definitely one of the most amazing parts of it—seeing how people come out of hiding, how they’re proud of who they are and what the future holds for them.
How have you gained support for the film?
The main thing I did was start a fundraising site. There’s something called Community Funding, which basically puts up a site and you post a trailer and offer people incentives for donating. I created a site for More Than Skin Deep and offered incentives from thank-you credits to actual producing credits for those who donate. I created an e-mail list to send out to people and asked them to send it to other people they know, and it’s really caught on. In Tennessee, especially, and also within the local media. That sort of attention can really go a long way in creating awareness.
How close are you to reaching your goal?
We’ve actually surpassed the goal. It’s amazing. The goal was $5,000 and we’re right at $7,000. On the website, it says about $5,800, but people have also just been sending me checks and cards and all kinds of stuff. People have been really supportive so far. Each dollar that we raise is going toward telling an even better story, interviewing more people and just making it that much better of a documentary.
What’s your goal date for the release?
We’re just at the beginning of producing. I want to say at least two years getting everything together, because whatever medication they come up with in the next couple years, I would like to end the documentary with us sort of going to try it out. I thought it would be a really inspirational ending. That’s going to take at least two years. So I want to release a short film version either this year or early 2013, so it can be used to start building awareness about what’s going on with the research, and use it to get funding for the feature-length.
How long would the short film be?
At least 20 to 30 minutes. I think that’s doable. Documentaries can get very expensive. This campaign is to get a lot of core production done, but when we talk about editing, getting videographers, it really adds up. Most videographers start around $600 each day. I’m looking into getting them to agree to lower rates. There’s just a lot to consider as you’re producing, but each step of the way, people come through. So I’m not worried about getting it done. I’m just trying to tell the best story that I can and release it when it’s ready.
Have you found that most of your funds have come from individuals who just heard about the project and want to get involved, or have organizations contributed as well?
I would say there were a couple of big donations. There’s one organization in Nashville called the Chips Quinn Scholars. It’s a journalism program. I studied journalism at MTSU and wrote for the Murfreesboro Pulse my freshman year. The program trains you in the summer and sends you on an internship. After I did that, I kept in contact with them and the guy who runs the program, John Quinn Sr. He donated $500 on behalf of the organization and made a deal that whoever else in the program donates, he will match their funding to another $500.
What’s been the biggest challenge in the preproduction stages of the film?
It never seems like there’s enough hours in the day to get everything done, so I really try to be positive and forward thinking and plunge ahead. There have been times when media organizations don’t see the story and may not want to write an article, or I have set goals as far as how much I want to raise each week, and if we don’t get there, I get discouraged. The issue to me is it’s a matter of setting out what I need to get done and just trying to get as much of it done as I can every day and just plowing away. As long as we’re making progress, I guess that’s better than nothing.
What’s been the biggest success so far?
I’m loving all of the people reaching out to me and seeing that the documentary is inspiring them. The documentary is not even done; there’s a two-minute trailer online, and those people hear about that and what we’re trying to do, and they’re motivated to do this or do that in their own communities. That’s been a blessing. The AVM patients are also emailing me and saying how encouraged they are and how empowered they are by seeing me not afraid to share what I’ve been through.
Are there are a lot of documentaries already out there on AVM?
I don’t think there are. It hasn’t been done the way I’m trying to do. This documentary is unique in that it’s someone with the disorder who’s helping other people tell their own stories. It’s not an outsider’s perspective. People are candid in our interviews and our conversations, and it’s going to make a huge difference in how people relate to the film. It’s not just someone who’s heard about AVM and is like, “Oh, let’s go and try to get people to talk about it and make some money off it.” I want to talk to other patients and get their stories out there so we can raise awareness and find a cure.
If nothing else, what would you like people to come away with when they see this documentary?
I want people to know that even though sometimes in life they face incredible obstacles, God has a purpose for your life and you can overcome and you can give your story to others. No matter what you look like, no matter what issues you have, those issues don’t define who you are inside.
Is the film project taking up most of your time right now? What else do you do?
I graduated from MTSU in 2010 and went right into my master’s. I actually changed courses a little bit from journalism to TV and film production. That gave me the background to go into the documentary making. From July 2010 until August 2011, I was in school at MTSU for my master’s. Last year when I graduated, I had another procedure. That was my thirtieth, and then I had my thirty-first procedure, and that’s when the doctor told me about his plans to find the cure. Then the thirty-second procedure happened, and that’s what started the documentary. I haven’t really had a lot of time to get bored or get complacent. When I was about to say, “Ok, what am I going to do next?” that’s when this documentary opportunity came along. I plan to move to LA in April after the campaign for funding, and hopefully I can start interviewing patients on the west coast.
What should people do if they want to contribute?
They should go to morethanskindeep.me and on that site there are links to the campaign site where they can donate, and there are links to our Facebook and Twitter. There’s also a description of the different hospitals and people who are helping me put together the documentary. They can see the trailer on the campaign site.
Did you come up with the title of the film?
Yeah, I did. Actually, the easiest thing so far was the title. I thought the phrase was perfect for what the film was going to try to do. Showing that we are all so much more than what society, what other people see when they look at us. There’s more than what meets the eye. It’s a beautiful message. If you have any disease or physical ailment, I think the message will still resonate.
Do you have any plans yet for marketing?
I’ve had a couple conversations with some TV networks like PBS, Discovery, Documentary Channel. Somewhere like that where it can be accessed on TV would be great. We’ll also have screening for different communities and have at least one or two patients in each community we go to tell their stories, then screen the documentary just to give each community the chance to get to know about AVM and how people have survived it.
Do you think you’d do a screening at MTSU?
I’d love to come back to MTSU and show that documentary. I think it would be a great outlet, something that would hopefully inspire students to do something of their own.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The film is a passionate project of mine, but it’s also something that has the potential to impact a lot of lives—those who have AVM and also those who are going through a rough time and need some inspiration. Anybody that wants to get involved and contribute to the documentary should know that their contribution is going to be an empowering and motivating tool in someone else’s life.
Though the website marks March 17 as the end date for the funding campaign, donations are still accepted and can be made through morethanskindeepmovie.webs.com/apps/donations.