Candid, considered and confronting, Three’s story of singer Stan Walker’s battle with cancer transcends the famous-person-facing-adversity form, writes Sam Brooks.
“I went for a routine check about two months ago – a week later I found out I’ve got cancer. I know I’m gonna beat this …”
“… And then, nek minute, I die.”
He laughs at himself, his bad joke, and the darkness of it all. He laughs because he has to, and also probably because he knows he made a joke that only he will laugh at.
It’s a classic Stan Walker moment – all the self-deprecating humour and laid-back charm that made him such a likeable presence as a contestant on Australian Idol, a judge on both seasons of The X Factor NZ and in his various film appearances over the past few years. He’s a committed person, a talented performer and he’s not afraid to take the piss out of himself.
Moments like these are peppered throughout the NZ on Air funded Stan, which tells the feature-ish length story of Walker finding out he has a form of stomach cancer and has to go through a lengthy treatment and recovery process. It’s a process that could doom his singing career and life as he knows it.
Complicating matters emotionally, for Stan and especially his mother April, the cancer comes from a CDH1 gene mutation, which is inherited from her side of the family. His grandfather, Rangi McLeod, filmed an episode of BBC’s Tomorrow’s World about his experience with the exact kind of cancer that Stan has – a cancer which requires his entire stomach being removed.
The documentary is a surprisingly raw look at how Stan and his immediate family deal with the diagnosis, the treatment, and the recovery. We see and hear doctors tell Stan about the surgery, we see him in the hospital immediately before and, in an absolutely wrenching few minutes, we see him directly after his operation. It’s the kind of thing that a more manipulative filmmaker would amp up, but it’s deployed here with such starkness that it is actually disarming.
The entire documentary – especially the first half – had me on the back foot. It’s easy to go into this kind of a project with some skepticism, with some assumption that whoever commissioned it and whoever is making it is doing it for easy ratings and even easier triggers for an audience’s emotional engagement. It’s a documentary about a famous person. It’s a documentary about a famous person going through hard times – even better. It’s a documentary about a famous person going through sickness and coming out the other side of it – gold.
But where Stan won me over was in its depiction of how a certain kind of New Zealander deals with illness, the performative nature of the stiff upper lip, and what happens when the realities of a potentially terminal and definitely life-changing illness break through that facade. The most heartbreaking moment is when April films Stan as he tries to walk after surgery, and you can hear how emotional it is for her to see him like that, and even harder for him to see her seeing him like that.
There’s something incredibly confronting about seeing someone go through some of the most vulnerable moments of their life, but there’s also something incredibly freeing, as an audience member, for someone to share those moments with you. Stan goes through a startling physical transformation, and when he shares his fears about how he looks, what people will think of it and what he thinks it might mean for his career, it’s as moving and as real as a television documentary could possibly get.
Stan is also very open about the complex impact that Stan’s illness, a hereditary one, has on people around him. The documentary touches on – not nearly enough – April’s relationship to her own cancer (through the same mutation, she had breast cancer a few years ago) and her guilt around passing the gene on. Given the close relationship that Stan and his mother clearly have, it’s a complicated thing for a family to go through. As an audience member, it’s a massive privilege to see real people work through those emotions without them being manipulated or wrung out for documentary’s sake.
For however raw and up-close this documentary is, there’s a distanced respect that prevents Stan from ever feeling exploitative, which is a credit to the filmmakers.
I went through a health thing last year that required hospitalisation and a recovery time that I stubbornly cut far too short because of vanity over how I might be seen by my loved ones – to be seen being weak, or to be seen actually needing help. I can’t say that Stan would’ve changed how I acted around that disease, because I’m stubborn as hell, but it’s eye-opening to see someone go through something vulnerable and actually be okay with being vulnerable.
When Stan Walker says, “I feel like I’m an actual sick person and there’s something wrong with me,” that shit stings. It feels real. I remember thinking that, I remember saying that, and I remember feeling that. To see someone have that moment on television is a big deal, and will be a big deal to many people who are going through something similar: It’s hard to feel it, but even harder to say it, and triply harder to have somebody you love hear you say it. To have an entire television audience hear you say it, I can’t even imagine what that’s like. It takes bravery on Stan the human’s part, and audacity on Stan the documentary’s part, to do it.
We’re bad in this country about both asking for help and getting help. If Stan is a little push in the direction of people realising that it’s okay to be vulnerable, especially for those around us, then it’s a very good thing.
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There’s a point where the documentary takes the notion of help a little bit too far. Stan starts to talk about people taking care of themselves and their body, and the importance of looking after your health. It speaks well to Stan’s inherent charm and genuine good nature that it comes off more like a man who has been put through the wringer rather than any kind of preachy self-help. It’s hard not to be affected by it – even as someone who is highly averse to being told what to do by people on the television – but when the first half of the film has been so emotionally complex and raw, it feels like a sentimental bow to tie it up with.
The second half of the film feels less complex – there’s an established narrative to the famous sick person documentary and, thankfully, Stan Walker’s recovery is an actual recovery, albeit one with bumps along the way. But what feels like big moments for Stan as a human being are been rushed over. Namely, his first performance after his surgery, which the documentary glides over without diving into how Walker might’ve felt in that moment, or really after it. There’s obviously the limitations within a feature-ish length documentary, but it feels like a large omission within a piece of work that has been so discerning about including what is important.
These are small quibbles to have with a film that is doing as much right, and as much good, as Stan is. The famous-person documentary is easy viewers, and the sick person documentary is easy feelings, but to have a documentary that combines both of those easy hooks with something that is emotionally compelling, intellectually complex and societally vital is special, and absolutely worth its weight in gold.
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