Doctor has high hopes for movie

Times Staff Writer

CANNES, France -- The entertainment industry attracts all sorts of unusual investors, but the people behind a new movie premiering at the Cannes Film Festival couldn’t be further removed from the Hollywood scene: They are Kansas doctors eager to tell a story about stem cell research.

Their fictional film, “Hope,” is making its world premiere in the sales market in Cannes (meaning it is not showing in public and press screenings), and when the lead physician behind the film says that lives are at stake, it’s not typical show business melodrama.

“America and the world have lost eight years of important research,” says Dr. Shelley Chawla, a Topeka neurologist who was partly motivated to make the film after watching his Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients suffer from the devastating diseases. “I want to help my patients,” the doctor says.


With the help of three other Kansas doctors and a local businessman, Chawla, who co-wrote the film and was a producer, put together nearly $500,000 to make “Hope.” None of the actors is recognizable, and the production quality is at best modest, although the movie (www.themoviehope .com) did film some scenes in New Delhi.

As Chawla sees it, though, the film is not intended to be slick entertainment; it’s intended to push people into action. “The point was to give the issue a personal perspective,” he says.

Chawla first worked out the plot of “Hope” in a self-published 2007 novel, “Hope . . . in vitro.” The movie follows the book’s basic story: Josh, the son of a conservative senator, is paralyzed in an automobile accident, and his girlfriend, Courtney, starts researching possible treatments involving embryonic stem cell research.

The central drama of “Hope” is whether Josh’s father will continue to oppose stem cell research or let his son undergo an experimental procedure in India, which the movie shows as being far ahead of America in creating medical treatments from research in that area.

“Isn’t an embryo a human being?” Josh asks his physician at one point. “We all have to decide for ourselves,” the doctor replies.

Chawla (who plays a doctor in the film) has definitely made up his mind, and he wants people who see the movie and read his book to look at the science, not the talking heads.


“I am not a political person,” he says. “The goal was for people to think for themselves.”

Chawla, 43, who was born in India and went to medical school in Chicago, is confident that if the debate turns in favor of stem cell trials, people with spinal cord injuries and degenerative diseases including arthritis, osteoporosis and diabetes soon could see promising new treatments.

He realizes the odds of his sales agent getting a theatrical release for “Hope” are slim, but he believes his movie could be a good pick for cable TV. And once people see the movie, Chawla says, the conversation about stem cell research might evolve more quickly.

“One religion’s perspective,” he says, “should not hold everybody else back. The Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t take blood transfusions, but they don’t force everybody else into the same position.”