SAE Glasgow Film student raises awareness of Rett Syndrome with his documentary, Help Me Communicate

18 Jun 2019

Jamie McDonald is a second year Digital Film Production student at SAE Glasgow, who is working on a documentary for his major project. The subject of the film is Rett Syndrome, a cause close to Jamie’s heart owing to his cousin Debi’s experiences looking after her daughter, Shona, who has the condition.

We spoke to Jamie to find out more about the project, and his career aspirations once he finishes the course in August, later this year.

Have you got a title for the documentary?

The title for my documentary is Help Me Communicate. When my cousin was first trying to find ways to help other people in her situation of looking after people affected by Rett Syndrome she set up a charity called Help Me Communicate, with the intention of getting computer hardware that would track eyes and help form sentences for Rett patients who aren’t able to speak. However, there is a second meaning to the title; I also wanted it to be a personal statement from myself to people who don’t know anything about the disorder and try and bring them information and hopefully raise public awareness/discourse for the disorder.

Who is the subject of the documentary?

The primary subject of the documentary is my cousin Debi and her child Shona (who suffers from Rett). This pairing would form the basis for a personal entry point for the audience to emotionally connect with the story; my Auntie (Debi’s mother) would act as a secondary source from a medical background to explain the amount of stress that looking after a child with a serious debilitating illness can be.

The documentary also examines two other areas surrounding Rett. One being a charity started down in Manchester called Reverse Rett, which was set up by a husband and wife (pictured: second left and centre) who have two children with the syndrome. The aim here was to understand the amount of work being done to raise awareness and funds for research into a potential cure. The final aspect that I covered was the medical research side; this took my team and I to Edinburgh University to meet with Dr Stuart Cobb and his team of researchers. Their work directly receives funds from Reverse Rett which helps support the complex research that they conduct and the current projects and the advancements made in medical understanding of the disorder.

What is your relationship to the subject(s), and what inspired you to tell their story?

I just thought it would have been a unique way to try and raise awareness for the disorder and the work done both by Reverse Rett and Stuart’s team in Edinburgh. Because of my cousin’s connection to Reverse Rett I had got myself into long distance running and raising money through donations. Although that was proving to be somewhat effective, only people who knew me were donating to it, and they were already aware of the disorder through my family and I talking about it. So I wais aiming to reach out to all the people I don’t know. Whilst money is always helpful for these situations, awareness is what the charity is in need of and with my course givig me the creative freedom for my Major Project, I felt that this was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass on.  

Who else is involved in the project?

For my project I wanted to keep the crew minimal, but with people who I have frequently collaborated with and I could trust to bring their A-game, as I would do when they call on me to help with their projects.

So the crew I ended up with is:

Myself: Director/Producer (pictured: second from right)

Sunita Hammond & Ben McCabe: Producer

Sil Derkx: 1st Assistant Director (pictured: far left)

James Raeburn: Director of Photography/Camera Operator (pictured: far right)

Sarah Carruthers: Location Audio Recordist/Audio Mixer

Gregor McAlpine: Editor

How are you planning to use the filmmaking techniques you have learnt at SAE to illustrate some of the symptoms people with Rett Syndrome experience?

From the documentary module of the FPR Course I was exposed to so many different modes of documentary which helped me almost narrow in on my specific creative style. I wanted this to be a personal story for the people involved, so my first step in trying to achieve this was to take myself out of the frame altogether. Still conducting interviews, but as an off-screen presence, I felt like my appearance on-screen would have taken the audience’s full attention away from the subjects on screen which was a major concern for myself.

What research or medical information will the documentary incorporate, and how are you planning to make this information accessible for your audience?

The documentary was able to capture a lot of in-depth information in regards to the research work being done. Some parts of the information are admittedly a lot to process and take in so the aid of graphics visualising the scientific lingo will be instrumental in allowing the audience to stay informed. Other areas that will require secondary sources to aid audience understanding will appear in the charities section, with videos from various people from the Rett community at various events hosted throughout the year to help raise awareness and funds for the cause.






What are you hoping the documentary will achieve?

Awareness for the disorder is the priority. How I go about trying to achieve that is another matter altogether. The main goal I had was to submit my documentary into various festivals around the country (Glasgow/Edinburgh film festivals, Sheffield Doc Festival etc.). Hopefully it will gain a bit of buzz and talk amongst people. If the film were to do well then I would plan to take it to various networks and try and sell it to a broadcaster. However, if it came to be that that route was unsuccessful, the power of sites like Vimeo or YouTube for creatives working today is truly staggering, so I wouldn’t be bothered by uploading the film online. However, my main course of action would be for the British public to see it first and foremost, as the film is based across the country. However, the ties that the Rett community has are international so I am hopeful and willing to push this film as far as I can to get the maximum amount of exposure possible.

When and where will you shoot it / have you already?

I have wrapped already on principle photography, and our three day shoot took my crew and I to Edinburgh University first, then to Clarkston in the south side of Glasgow, and finally down to Manchester to speak with the people at Reverse Rett.

What are you enjoying about your studies at SAE?

I have to say it truly has been an eye-opening time. Intensive, but so gratifying to have all this practical experience under my belt already. The people are fantastic, and even though SAE lacks the size of your typical university, it makes it feel more like a close-knit family. Everyone is able to chat away and have a good laugh together, making it the ideal environment to have all these creatives in, with constant collaboration being a prime factor in its success.

What are your plans post-graduation - what area of the film industry do you want to work in, and do you have a specific role in mind?

I have a few ideas that I definitely want to pursue in my career, but my initial dream after completing film school was to become a writer and director. As my time at SAE has continued, I became intrigued by documentaries, I feel like I want to tell more stories in this mode first before returning to my initial path.

I plan to undertake another documentary once I have finished my time at SAE, so that will become my immediate focus once I have finished in August. The documentary will be another subject close to my heart, as it focuses on my Grandfather, and his life story as a young boy who moved to Australia and returned to Glasgow, and his experiences as a folk singer and jazz musician during the 60s, 70s and 80s. I have only heard small pieces here and there about his life and his estranged family across the world, so trying to better understand someone I have known all my life will be an intriguing and emotive challenge.

For a more long term plan, I am looking at returning to fiction writing as a main focus, as the storytelling aspect of filmmaking has always fascinated me, so I would definitely look to get myself back into that.

Another area that I want to consider is also starting up a podcast. This is an idea that I had pitched to the lecturers at SAE Glasgow but it had its faults so required a lot of reworking. I like having debates and talking about political/social issues that I find intriguing and enlightening. I am always listening to podcasts from people like Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, Russell Brand and Sam Harris. Being constantly engaged with new ideas has become an insightly part of my life, and I am probably most known at SAE for being most likely to end up in a heated debate. So it may be a fitting place for me!

Find out more about Rett Syndrome on the NHS website.

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