Four people from the U.S. who are living with diabetes have had four very different experiences managing their condition.
Niurka, a Hispanic woman living in the Bronx, has trouble communicating with her doctor. Stewart, from Lexington, Kentucky, developed heart disease alongside his diabetes. Shenekqual from Dallas didn’t realize the extent of the disease until her son was also diagnosed. Susie, living in rural Yucca Valley, California, can’t find fresh, healthy food to manage her diet.
These are the stories in Merck’s documentary A Touch of Sugar, which premiered Thursday night at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The film looks at diabetes from the perspective of those with it. The participants talk about how they heard about diabetes from older family members, but instead of people saying — or knowing — they had a disease, they simply called it “the sugar.”
They talk about the struggles to learn about diabetes after they were diagnosed. Susie said her doctor simply handed her a pamphlet after her diagnosis. Shenekqual remembered waking up in the hospital and finding out her 11-year-old son had driven her there after she collapsed.
A Touch of Sugar was the brainchild of Conrod Kelly, executive director of the diabetes franchise at Merck. He said the diabetes marketing team was looking for a different, more impactful way to reach people with and without diabetes to address the stigma and barriers to care.
“Consumers have just been clamoring for real stories,” Kelly said. “It’s one thing to see the ad on TV and all the balance, but it’s like, is that really me? We felt like this was the best way to do it. This is where social change has really happened, through film and through the arts.”
For a blast of starpower, Merck partnered with Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis, who narrated the documentary and is serving as a spokesperson. Davis is talking for the first time about her own and her family’s experience with diabetes. She adds her own story to the film, talking about how diabetes led to serious complications for her great aunt, her two sisters living with diabetes and her own recent diagnosis with prediabetes.
“I’ve seen how diabetes has single-handedly ravaged families,” Davis said at the premiere. “I prefer living with the disease to dying with the disease.”
The film addresses issues from health literacy and food deserts to disease stigma and health disparities in black and Hispanic communities, and it also looks at solutions. Stewart became a vocal advocate in Washington, DC, for the American Diabetes Association, and Shenekqual educates people in her community about how to be healthier and manage diabetes. Niurka and Susie learned to lean on their families to manage the condition and to lead healthier lives.
Kelly said the film’s production went through the same regulatory process at Merck as would any other marketing, but it’s not about the products. He convinced his colleagues at the pharma company that films like this are “what leaders do.”
“It’s really about helping to break down that stigma,” Kelly said. “You tell someone you have cancer. They’ll say, ‘Sorry to hear that. What are you doing for your treatment?’ They’re actively engaged, ready to jump on it. You tell someone you have diabetes, and you get the blank stare.”
A Touch of Sugar is part of Merck’s unbranded diabetes program, America’s Diabetes Challenge. That initiative urges people with diabetes to meet their A1C goals, an average measurement of blood glucose over 10 to 12 weeks, and to learn the signs of low blood sugar. Merck worked with GCI Health over the past year to make the documentary.
Merck has submitted the documentary to film festivals, Kelly said, and the team is working to bring it to communities disproportionately affected by diabetes, like black and Southern communities. Kelly also noted that Merck has been contacted by content distributors who are interested in the film.
Kelly, like so many people involved with the film, has been personally affected by diabetes, making this film hit close to home.
“Being a person of color, knowing what diabetes has done to my community, what it’s done in my own family, and being able to tell the story and seeing how we’ve been able to pull in so many different advocacy groups and to get Viola Davis to tell her story, it’s been such an inspiration,” Kelly said. “Making something that’s enduring like this, this could be in a time capsule. [The film] is about a legacy, and it’s not about me, but it’s about all the people that worked to pull this together and all the people who will be touched by it.”