‘Narcos’/‘RoboCop’ filmmaker and Change the Ref debut ‘American Cancer Story’ ahead of Columbine’s 25th anniversary

‘American Cancer Story’ is the poignant, new coming-of-age short film José Padilha wishes he didn’t have to make. 

Inspired by horrifying data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), attributing firearms as the leading cause of child and teen fatalities, the film links gun violence and pediatric cancer in an emotional storyline about a young girl who beats cancer only to face a school shooting.Change the Ref (CTF) released the film on AmericanCancerStory.com ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting. The website asks viewers to share the film and demand urgent change from politicians and lawmakers. It is also raising funds for 10 pediatric cancer charities. The dramatic 90-second film is also running as a public service announcement on a variety of television networks.

‘A victim is a victim’

Patricia and Manuel Oliver, co-founders of CTF, talked about the significance of the film’s unique double narrative. “These are two important issues that we are confronting,” said Patricia, who appears in the film as the school teacher. Added Manuel, “This is not about gun violence versus cancer; this is gun violence in alliance with cancer. How can we prevent both of them? Because a victim is a victim, and every father and mother who loses a child goes through the same pain.”

Their son, Joaquin “Guac” Oliver was one of the 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School murdered with an assault weapon designed for war and purchased by a 19-year-old. His toy bobblehead appears in the film, which was symbolically released at 7:40 am – the time Manuel dropped him off at school on February 14, 2018. 

Padilha (‘Narcos’/‘RoboCop’/‘Elite Squad’) wrote the screenplay and directed the film after receiving the initial treatment developed by Rich Levy, Bernardo Romero, and Tim Jones, creative leaders at Klick Health. Maroon 5 founding member and lead guitarist James Valentine wrote his first original score for the film, which also features a song by the multi-Grammy® Award-winning band. Douglas Costa at Taking Over Films produced. Visual effects were done by Pierre Buffin, post-production by BUF Company (‘Avatar’/‘Thor’/‘Blade Runner 2049’), editing by Marcio Hashimoto, and sound production by AudioInk.

“I have dedicated my career to telling stories with social impact,” Padilha said. “This film is one of the most impactful I’ve ever directed. I hope it strikes a chord with everyone so we can help change the story for children in America.”

Valentine said, “I was drawn to this project because I’ve been concerned about these two issues for a very long time. Pediatric cancer has been important to me and the band. We got involved with a program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles many years ago. And in high school, I was assigned to do a project on gun violence. It was a real wake-up call for me. Ever since then, I feel like I’ve just seen it get worse.” 

According to the latest CDC data, gun violence took over as the leading cause of death for US children and teens in 2021, accounting for almost 19 percent of fatalities (almost twice that in 1999) – ahead of car accidents (16.5 percent) and pediatric cancer (8 percent). 


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