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July 24th, 2014

Q&A With “Resistance” Filmmaker Michael Graziano

By Katy Kiefer

“Resistance” filmmaker Michael Graziano and his daughter, Tess

Michael Graziano, the filmmaker behind Resistance, a ground-breaking new film on the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, took time to answer some of our burning questions. Like many of us, Graziano isn’t a scientist or a doctor, but decided that this was a story the public urgently needed to hear. Keep reading to learn more about his experience making the film and what you can do to help curb antibiotic resistance. 

Q: What made you decide to tackle the problem of antibiotic resistance?

A: Our previous film Lunch Line was about the history and politics of the National School Lunch Program. In the process of making and touring that film we learned a lot about public health and became acquainted with a number of agriculture and public health advocacy groups. Through that work we started hearing about MRSA (resistant staph) infections in school locker rooms, day care centers and the like. At the same time we also started hearing about the overuse of antibiotics on farms. I decided to look more into the issue and was shocked by what I learned. I thought the problem deserved a closer, and more generally accessible examination than I could find at the time.   

Q: What was the biggest or most surprising thing you learned in the process of making the film?

A: There are a few. One is that there are basically no new antibiotics in the pharmaceutical pipeline, and even if a new compound were discovered today it could easily take 10 years and $1 billion for that compound to become a clinically useful medicine. To make matters worse, the large investment in time and money required for antibiotic development, along with some other factors addressed in the film, has caused many pharma companies to shutter their antibiotic development units so there are now only a small handful of companies actually doing this critical research.  

Another is that official estimates warn that half of all antibiotic prescriptions in the US are unnecessary. HALF. That seems crazy once you learn about what’s at stake and how resistance works. 

Another is that 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used on farms. This statistic is also maddening when you consider the reasons for the agricultural overuse – chiefly for growth promotion and to compensate for dirty and/or crowded conditions on animal farms.  

Finally, there is the fact that we are outnumbered 10 to 1 on a cellular level by microbes – i.e. on a cellular level our body mass is 10x more microbial than human.

Q: There are some powerful special interests (i.e. Big Ag) that want nothing more than to maintain the status quo, and to keep abusing antibiotics to boost profits. Did you run into any obstacles or opposition in creating this film?

A: The primary obstacle to making the film was access. I had some great conversations with researchers at drug companies that still actively work on antibiotics, but in multiple cases once the corporate attorneys got involved for whatever reason they put the kibosh on filming even though the actual researchers and scientists were eager to talk about the issue. That was frustrating. I was grateful that Astra-Zeneca did grant us access to one of their research facilities and that Dr. John Rex from Astra-Zeneca (who appears in the film) was allowed to share his significant insights on the problem.  

Q: Did you try to interview anyone from the meat industry? What was their response?

A: I tried several times to get individuals associated with the conventional animal agriculture industry to sit for interviews. I had some emails and even phone calls with people, mostly large animal veterinarians who either work for or closely advise industrial meat companies (the National Pork Producers Council is one example), but when it came time to actually schedule interviews I could never get anyone to commit. 

Q: What’s the top takeaway that you want audiences to leave your film with? What would you like them to do once they watch it?

A: Antibiotics are a miracle. If you or those you care about have a bacterial infection you absolutely want access to effective antibiotics. That said, not only does unnecessary exposure to antibiotics not help you, but it can hurt you, sometimes acutely – through adverse reactions – and also more subtly by causing changes to your microbiome. The science around the consequences of those subtle long-term exposures is still emerging, but the risk is real and serious and I think we should proceed with caution. Antibiotics are a precious resource that we must preserve, replenish and stop taking for granted. For personal health, the health of our loved ones, and our communities we must reduce as much unnecessary exposure to antibiotics as possible. We can all make smarter choices about:

  1. The way we interact with our doctors (don’t demand antibiotics from your doctor and don’t take antibiotics when you don’t need them. If your doctor says you need an antibiotic, ask questions: Why? What’s the cost/benefit of waiting or not taking them at all?) 
  2. The kinds of products we buy (e.g. you don’t need antibacterial soap, much less antimicrobial-infused athletic gear or cooking supplies – these are real things with real risks)
  3. The food we eat (if you’re an omnivore, was your meat raised on a cocktail of antibiotics?  If you’re a vegetarian, were your fruits or vegetables sprayed with antibiotics?)

We should also all demand that our elected officials pass legislation to regulate antibiotics more carefully.

Q: If you had room for more in the film (or a sequel), is there anything else you would have included?

A: Antibiotic resistance is such a complex and wide-ranging subject that I ended up with almost 1 hour of bonus features on the DVD and in the Deluxe Download version of the film. If I’d had more time or could do a sequel I think it’d be interesting to explore more about the microbiome and all the interesting things being discovered about microbial ecology. 

Q: There are several heart-wrenching stories of families and young children affected by antibiotic resistance in the film. When you’re dealing with a problem that’s so entrenched, and that affects people’s lives so deeply, is it hard to stay positive? What’s the silver lining?

A: Resistance is a huge and hugely complex problem and it can seem overwhelming. Things that give me cause for optimism are all the smart and talented people working on the problem and the fact that our individual choices  (such as those listed above) can positively impact our personal health and safety with regard to resistance. We definitely do, however, need macro policy changes to address this problem and I am not optimistic about the prospects of those changes occurring at the federal level any time soon.

If you’re ready for action, learn more and get involved in your local movement to save antibiotics from factory farm abuse.

One Comment on Q&A With “Resistance” Filmmaker Michael Graziano

  1. Elwood Herom says:

    Ironic that you mention the burden of research and testing for development of new antibiotics (10 years and a billion dollars), yet your solution to the problem is additional legislation and regulation. More government is not the answer. I applaud your action. It is action (and freedom to do so) by individuals that willl bring meaningful change. Solve problems from the demand side of the problem by bringing the problem into view as you have with your film. However, you must realize that you are unwittingly helping to destroy the idea of individual freedom by argueing for more legislation. Informed buyers will demand change. So continue educating. Just stop playing the role of useful idiot. Enforcement is mearley tyranny unrefined.

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