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Interview with Don Barrett, creator of 'Pain in America' documentary

7/16/2013 (Archived)

Pain in AmericaDuring Homecoming, registered guests, non-registered members of the Palmer community and the public can attend a special sneak preview of Don Barrett’s documentary “Pain in America.” Mr. Barrett, an award winning writer, producer and director, will be available to answer questions after the showing. “Pain in America” will be shown on Thursday, Aug. 8, from 11:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. in the auditorium of Vickie Anne Palmer Hall. Until then, Palmer Highlights helps you get to know the man behind the film everyone in the chiropractic profession is talking about. 

Palmer Highlights: Your work has included an impressive variety of projects, such as “Scared Straight,” “The Voyager Odyssey” and “A Day Without a Yesterday.” Is this your first time delving into the health care arena?

Don Barrett: Actually, no. Back around 1974, I had an idea. Most hospitals at the time were just starting to put in television systems that used one antenna to receive television programs that could be distributed to every patient room (and the doctor’s lounge). I conceived the concept of using that internal closed circuit distribution for patient education, since most of daytime television wasn’t very good (in my opinion). The real problem was what was to show on the hospital’s educational channel. Most of the educational programming in the marketplace was about as exciting as Saturday night in Albuquerque. 

That’s when I started, in a very humble way, producing educational programming for hospitals. Most of the hospitals that bought my programming were small—less than 100 beds—and located in rural areas (the hospitals began where the corn fields ended). Then I sold to my first big city hospital—Grady Memorial in Atlanta. In 1977, I sold the “Cetacom Hospital Television Network” to Pyramid Films (which was in the business of distributing documentary programming) and went to work for them. They liked my shows, and that led to “Scared Straight” and a trip to the Academy Awards (also the Emmys and the Peabodys). The first videotaped program I ever made was “Living with Diabetes.”

PH: Why did you decide to take on this project?

Don Barrett: For 20 years I had trouble with my lower back. I tried everything—ice packs, injections with long needles, all kinds of medication. Nothing worked. Then in 2011, I moved to Kansas City, Mo., and Dr. June Rogers began treating me with chiropractic adjustments. Honest to Henry, I now have the back of a 25-year-old, which I assure you I am not. I was totally ignorant of chiropractic and began to ask questions. The more I learned, it became apparent that the general public was even more ignorant than I. 

Then in July 2012, I asked Dr. June what she thought about making a documentary about chiropractic. It took 10 months, 158 interviews and about 20,000 miles of travel. Then my editor, Rick Waggener, and I spent a little better than ten weeks building a show. We use the word “build” because sometimes you feel like you’re building the Taj Mahal, one stone at a time. A good documentary tells a big story, but is made up of many smaller stories. Each has to be self-consistent, and when you put it all together, most of all, it has to play. If it’s boring, I call it video valium. If it’s really bad, I call it video ipecac. “Pain in America” (and remember I’ve seen it over 100 times) is to me more like video ambrosia. I hope the audience feels the same way.

PH: Was there anything that surprised you about what you learned regarding the health care industry during the process of making the film?

Don Barrett: There were a lot of surprises, and I’d have to say all of them weren’t necessarily pleasant. The health care industry is a bit like a Boeing 747. A big passenger jet has over two million parts, and everything has to work right to keep it in the air. The health care system has a lot more pieces, and some of them are downright dysfunctional.

I’m a baby boomer (told you I wasn’t 25). One of the big questions I had in mind while making the show was whether or not the health care system as currently constituted could handle the 79 million of us who’d be crossing 65 between now and 2029. It’s apparent to me that the answer is no, and that doesn’t touch on the cost. If you think the national debt is high, I have to tell you the cost of health care for my generation, once you correct for inflation, is higher! Having said that, I think chiropractic can play a large role in reducing those costs—or in making our health care system much more cost effective. Now you don’t (or you shouldn’t) make a documentary that asks a big question without some possible answers, and we explore those possibilities. In my opinion, though, the best solution is the very last thing in the show before the credits. It won’t mean much if you don’t watch what comes before it, so I highly advise not skipping to the end. The most important thing about getting the answers is asking the right questions. And we did—thousands of them.

PH: What do you hope people take away from “Pain in America”?

Don Barrett: If I could have one wish regarding what the viewer takes away from “Pain in America,” it would be this: If you have chronic pain (and 100 million Americans do), you ought to give chiropractic a try. You have nothing to lose but your misery. Also, almost without exception, I think chiropractors are pretty nice people. For a long time they were the Rodney Dangerfields of the health care profession, but this is a new day, and I hope this documentary convinces some of its viewers that there’s hope for better health and a mostly pain-free life if they give their local chiropractor a chance.

I’ll tell you a secret—I was in Washington, D.C., and a man who knew about “Scared Straight” told me that the show had literally saved a bunch of his friends from spending their lives in prison and even worse. That was worth more to me than I can ever express. If “Pain in America” leads to pain relief for, at least, the people that view it, than all the work we put into producing it will be forgotten. And I can go to sleep each night with a smile on my face.