As we grow older, we tend to value things more. Our friends, family, colleagues, relationships, and even strangers that we spend time with. The cycle of life runs its course and along the way we hope to become wiser from our experiences. Through those experiences, both good and bad, we hope to grow. Sometimes we have to face adversity. Sometimes it is self-inflicted, other times, unfortunately, it's not.
As storytellers, it is humbling to have the opportunity to dissect what a story means and figure out how those central figures and supporting characters can teach us so much. How their journeys are wholesome and how we, as audience members, can relate in some way. The filmmaking process itself can be humbling. The people we work with, the subjects we encounter, the locations we film at, there always seems to be room for growth and reflection. When Stevie Ansara, our producer, brought this particular project to the table, I knew we would grow a lot from it without even having started on the preliminary stages.
The request came in with a story about a mother and daughter, Teaqua Jacobs and Jada Smoot. Both of them struggling with Neurofibromatosis (NF), a set of complex genetic disorders that affects almost every organ system, causing tumors to form in the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. They were both affected by the disorder in dramatically different ways. If that wasn't compelling enough, their address looked eerily familiar. When I dug in a bit deeper, it turned out this mother-daughter duo lived in my hometown just blocks away from where I grew up in Redford, MI. WO Director Hamoody Jaafar and I explored further and learned that Jada went to my old middle school. From our very first interaction with Jada Smoot and Teaqua Jacobs, we connected.
Jada is a sixth grader at Pierce middle school and she is currently battling NF. Jada was born with NF but it wasn't until she was about three years old that the tumors started showing on her neck and throat. Jada’s mother Teaqua was also born with NF. She didn't know she had it until she was 10 years old and although she has a tumor on her face, it is drastically less obvious than Jada’s. As we learned more about their family's history with NF we discovered that Teaqua’s father also had NF – three generations living and coping with the same disorder. In regards to Jada, the family has decided not to pursue surgery. Removing a tumor located on her face is complicated. Jada’s doctors feared removing it would do more harm than good – a difficult decision to make for any family in that type of situation.
On the shoot day, I was able to break away from the group briefly and spend about an hour walking around the school alone. It was so nostalgic, even therapeutic in a weird way. Middle school was the place I really came into my own, and was definitely the time in my life where I was discovering my love for the arts. All of my senses were activated. From the smell of the cafeteria to the school bell ringing, it brought me right back to being 12 years old again as I walked the same halls Jada walks everyday.
As I thought about it, who would look at Jada and I and think we have anything in common? Probably no one. While producing, I was learning more and more about how much we actually did have in common. We walked the same streets to school, we had the same teachers, we like the same music ... Well, most of the same music ;) I saw a lot of myself in her.
Jada and Teaqua are some of the most optimistic people we have ever met and they have figured out a way to live their best lives despite the NF disorder. They have created a way to motivate and uplift one another. They are going to live with NF to the best of their ability and live life to the fullest.
We feel so honored to have met Jada and Teaqua. They embody what it means to embrace positivity in the face of adversity. They humbled us, educated us, made us laugh, made us cry, and most importantly, made us better people. They are inspiring in countless ways.
As filmmakers, it's imperative to be genuine and honest in our approach. When we do that, we open ourselves up to so many more possibilities. Not only as creatives but as human beings. Jada and Teaqua's story of dealing with an incurable diagnosis like Neurofibromatosis is absolutely amazing. To be in the presence of such positive energy is a privilege. It reminds you to never take life for granted. The ability to laugh, smile, and play, can be lost in the weeds of 'likes' and smartphones these days. This situation put things into perspective for us; reminding us how lucky we are to be in the position we are in and even luckier to have met and spent time with Jada and Teaqua.