- by Gary Finnegan

Interview: Documentary filmmaker on the History Channel’s ‘Programmed to Kill: Dengue’

Image of a patient getting treatment for dengue infection from the film Programmed to Kill

Image from the film Programmed to Kill: Dengue shared via historyasia.com

Q&A with the documentary filmmaker targeting dengue

Programmed to Kill: Dengue, the new documentary from Malaysian filmmaker Gerard Benedict is set to air on the History Channel across Asia this week. The film takes an in-depth look at  dengue fever, a disease unknown to many, that affects almost 1/2 of the globe.  In just over 30 years, dengue has gone from having a presence in only 9  countries to becoming the world’s most rapidly spreading mosquito-born viral disease.  In his documentary, Benedict examines many of the reasons why the dengue virus can be difficult to manage.  But how did this film come about?

The former TV presenter, and producer based in Kuala Lumpur, Gerard Benedict met dengue expert Professor Lam Sai Kit of the University of Malaya with the intention  to make a film about Nipah virus. But instead, found himself making a film on an entirely different topic. “He encouraged me to do a documentary on dengue instead because a potential dengue vaccine was in the coming,” Gerard told Break Dengue.

Image, A team of doctors discuss dengue trzeatment for patients in need.

A team of doctors discuss treatments for dengue patients in need. Image from the documentary film, Programmed to Kill: Dengue shared via historyasia.com

“He encouraged me to do a documentary on dengue instead because a potential dengue vaccine was in the coming…”

We caught up with Gerard for a quick-fire interview about the making of his powerful public health documentary to uncover more about the making of this epic tale. Read our exclusive interview with Gerard Benedict on Programmed to Kill: Dengue, and find out how his production of the neglected disease was realized.

What motivated you to make this film about dengue?

It immediately struck me that there were many things about the disease that I had not known and that meant that most people would not know either. All we knew was dengue gave you terrible fever, horrible joint pain and you bled and that you had to take a lot of fluids. But there were so many other facts about dengue that we didn’t know.

What key pieces of information were you missing?

For a start, I didn’t know about the dengue vaccine. I didn’t know that there were four serotypes and that you could get dengue multiple times. I found out why you bleed and why you go into shock and that secondary infections are the ones that can lead to severe dengue.

So it was these new facts and more, which I learned from the experts I met later, that made me want to do a documentary. And fortunately up to that point no one had ever done a full-documentary on dengue.

How did this film come to life?

I discussed with my co-producer Harjit and Chris Humphrey, the Executive Producer at the History Channel and both they realized that there were a lot of people who didn’t really know “the inside story” of dengue. That’s how it started.

But from the outset, we wanted to make a film that had international appeal, at least for southeast Asia. We wanted an international cast and a show that even looked and felt international. So we have Prof. Duane Gubler, Prof. Annelies Wilder-Smith and of course Dr. Alain Bouckenooghe of Sanofi plus others from Malaysia and Singapore on the show. And we even engaged a former BBC TV presenter – Ms. Juliet Morris – to narrate.

Have you made films about public health issues before?

No. This is the first so it was a lot harder because for one thing we needed to put all the facts together in a 45-minute show. And for another, the documentary was targeting audiences who already know the disease well in endemic countries.

What is the focus of the film?

The target audience is anyone above 14. So the film is really a story of many aspects of the disease but delivered in simple language that the layman can understand. It is a history of the disease and its vector…it’s about the virus, it’s about the vector, it’s about the symptoms, it’s about our current challenges and methods employed to control dengue, and it ends with a brief explanation on the making of the vaccine and its release. We are blessed that the timing of our show and the release of the vaccine have coincided.

Image from the film Programmed to Kill: Dengue shared a doctor tests blood for dengue

Image from the film Programmed to Kill: Dengue shared via historyasia.com

What is your goal in making this film ?

I hope that people who watch it will have better knowledge of the disease and so be more prepared and able to get around it with the least number of problems. For example, if a person comes away with very mild fever and is told they have dengue, they may be more careful if they get it the next time. Or people may, after the documentary, really look out for the warning signs or be aware of what they need to do if they do display a few of the warning signs. They can even get a few tips on how to combat the vector.

Do you have any direct experience of dengue fever?

I have not had a personal experience of the disease but know of friends who have and one who died.

When and where will Programmed to Kill: Dengue, air?

Titled Programmed to kill: dengue, and it premieres on the History Channel in Asia on 29 May 2016.  The documentary will be available to millions of people in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines. Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Brunei, PNG, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

Why is the History Channel interested in this story?

Because it’s a universal subject matter that is very appealing to all of the Channel’s markets in southeast Asia since dengue is endemic in the region. A tropical disease is one of the few subjects that can go across borders in this diverse region. And the story does have elements of history from the virus to the disease, to the vector, even to vaccine research itself.

What do you hope will come of this film?

Definitely greater dengue awareness and also that people will get some new value added information on topics such as ‘herd immunity”, change of serotype, some unknown facts about Aedes, and of minor importance – dengue’s notorious cousins including the new kid in town – Zika.

Watch the official trailer for the documentary film below. Programmed to Kill: Dengue airs Sunday, May 29 across southeast Asia on the History channel. ‘Like’ the film’s official Facebook page to find out when the documentary will be released in your area.