The documentary RESISTANCE FIGHTERS explores the global crisis of proliferating antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Resistant bacteria are causing 700,000 deaths worldwide. A similar phenomenon of resistance recently made headlines; the fungus Candida auris has developed resistance to antifungals and can cause an infection that is fatal to 30-60% of those who get it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. RESISTANCE FIGHTERS follows doctors, patients, economists, and diplomats who are trying to manage this crisis. The film made its world premiere in March at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen in the festival’s Science section. RESISTANCE FIGHTERS is directed by Micahel Wech, with whom we sat down at CPH:DOX.
Science & Film: Why were you interested in making this film antibiotic resistance?
Michael Wech: I had a personal experience. I was hospitalized with a bacterial infection and it was so severe that I had to spend about a week at the hospital taking rather strong antibiotics. I was hospitalized over two consecutive years with the same problem, so I learned the value of antibiotics. The second time they said, had you been in northern Finland away from everything else then there might have been some complications. It was severe, and I had developed a high fever. It was a very strong experience. Around the same time, I read a series of articles about the fact that the British government had installed somebody to take care of the problem of antibiotic resistance.
I have seen about ten documentaries on the subject [of antibiotic resistance] and they all had a narrator; the narration always had the tone, this is the end of the world, with very strong wording like “killer bacteria.” I watched these documentaries and I didn’t understand what was so scary—it’s just a bacteria. So my intention was to be serious but not alarmist in tone, even though I think the film has turned out rather dark.
Another thing I didn’t like about other films is that they show scientists in [places like] the Amazon river and they say, in this strange plant I have found a new active ingredient and I’m very sure this is going to be a great antibiotic of the future. We have to tell the people the truth. These outlooks are very misleading because out of at least 100 potential active ingredients, maybe one or two will turn out to be an antibiotic we see in the market. All this basic research is great, fantastic, and we need it, but we also need the industry. Clinical testing [for new drugs] is the most expensive part of this whole problem and no university can do that [alone]. A clear message of the film is that we need the industry at the table.
S&F: Where do you think the major gaps in public understanding are?
MW: I think people don’t understand the global perspective. A lot of people in this field have a very narrow focus. Still, after this film, there are some scientists who say, I’ve never seen a case of antibiotic resistance in my hospital. It’s not about your little hospital! You must care about what happens in Bangladesh. This is something that creeps in slowly. It’s very difficult to capture people’s imagination because it’s not like Ebola, you don’t have a real crisis [yet].
S&F: That sounds a little similar to climate change, which is also a global problem that happens slowly.
MW: Yeah. It’s very difficult to capture in just a presentation or a talk the scope of the problem. You could narrow it down and say, the only problem is that we are running out of working antibiotics and there is very little new antibiotic research in the pipeline. These are developments that will lead to certain consequences, but there is more to the issue than that. It’s not only about antibiotics. It is about preventing disease which is a question of hygiene, but I didn’t want to make a film about washing your hands—that’s boring. The issue is also about vaccination, but there is so much debate about that so I didn’t want to make that film either. I don’t want RESISTANCE FIGHTERS to be just for nerds, because I’m working for the general public, so I wanted everybody to understand it and to allow for a certain degree of complexity.
S&F: How did you go about learning about the subject?
MW: I benefited a lot from the O’Neill report [a global analysis of antibiotic resistance with proposals for action that was commissioned by the UK in 2014]. We didn’t start filming much before 2016 and at that point in time he was already finishing the report. We hadn’t even financed the film but we went to Geneva. In September 2016 we still didn’t have the financing but the Executive Producer said, we’re going to the United Nations General Assembly in New York to capture this event. By that time the report was published so the research was there. That was very beneficial to the ongoing work. The film is not all based on that of course, but that was a good starting point.
S&F: What’s next for the film?
MW: There is a great chance that we will be presenting this film at the upcoming General Assembly at the United Nations in New York in September of 2019. We’re also working on the international cinema release, and have Dogwoof as a distribution company.
RESISTANCE FIGHTERS is written and directed by Michael Wech, and produced by Leopold Hoesch.