Documentary On Polio Battle Vies For Oscar

Still from The Final Inch www.thefinalinch.org

She had nothing to do with "Slumdog Millionaire," but filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky is thrilled that the movie has generated so much pre-Oscar hype.

That's because her documentary "The Final Inch" -- which has also been nominated for an Academy Award -- takes a real-life look at India's slums. The film explores the final battle against polio, a largely forgotten disease that continues to ravage the world's poorest areas -- areas that the Hollywood feature so graphically depicts.

"Slumdog Millionaire is reaching millions more than my film will reach," Taylor Brodsky says from Los Angeles. "I'm grateful that it brings to light some of the issues that my film addresses in a very real way."

The reality is staggering. Polio, a disease widely considered obsolete in the industrialized world, still poses a threat to children living in areas with poor sanitation. Last year, more than 1,600 cases were reported worldwide, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a collaborative effort led by Rotary, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and UNICEF.

Taylor Brodsky's film chronicles the world's largest non-military army -- some 4 million in India alone -- who continue to wage the battle to eradicate the disease. The camera follows people like Ashfaq Bhat, a doctor and Kashmir native, who travels to remote areas to give the coveted vaccine to children. We also meet Munzareen Fatima, a UNICEF volunteer who tries to sway skeptical families to get their children immunized in Uttar Pradesh -- India's ground zero of the disease.

Taylor Brodsky, 38, says getting skeptical families to comply with the vaccinations is a major hurdle. Some families hide their children because they simply don't trust American-made medicines. Others simply refuse the vaccination as a form of political protest.

"People are angry that the government isn't doing enough to get rid of the root of polio -- sanitation, over-crowdedness and poor health care," says the filmmaker. "I don't think they realize how much they are truly putting their children at risk."

Another obstacle for volunteers is simply reaching the people who need the vaccine in remote areas -- including war zones. Tom Grant, the film's producer, shot countless hours of footage in the dangerous region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He had to wear a bullet-proof vest and was under constant U.N. protection.

"He was putting his life at risk and we were also worried he was putting health workers lives' at risk by bringing so much attention to them," says Taylor Brodsky.

The filmmaker, who previously worked at CBS Sunday Morning, credits Dr. Larry Brilliant for encouraging her to do the movie. Brilliant is the executive director of Google.org, which contributes resources to address some of the world's most urgent problems. Brilliant was behind the 1970s campaign to eradicate small pox -- thus far the only such effort to succeed 100 percent. Polio would be just the second virus in human history to be completely wiped out.

"We are hoping the film will encourage those working hard on polio to bring this eradication effort over the finish line," a Google.org spokesman said. "We need to work until the last case of polio has been removed from the planet."

As the film chronicles, polio is not confined to far-off regions. The documentary follows polio survivor Mikhail Davenoport as he rides a hand-cycle 950 miles across his native Texas to raise awareness about the disease. Then there is Martha Mason in North Carolina. Left paralyzed and unable to breathe by polio as a child, she has lived in an Iron Lung for the past six decades.

While the polio eradication effort is daunting, the statistics are encouraging. Two decades ago, 20,000 people a day were getting polio; this year, fewer than 1,000 will. Taylor Brodsky points out that the current campaign will not only prevent future generations from contracting the disease, it will also be a tremendous financial savings -- "like the Holy Grail" in the public health community.

Now, the filmmaker is vying for Hollywood's Holy Grail -- the golden Oscar statuette. But even as she soaks in Tinsel Town's biggest night, her thoughts are never far from the remote regions featured in her documentary.

"You feel this tremendous responsibility," she says. "You've been given this soapbox for a month -- a chance to meet other filmmakers but also to have a modest opportunity to tell people about the film. That's why we do it."

By Stephen Smith
  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com

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