Using Their Power for Good

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Anabel Stenzel, left, and Isabel Stenzel Byrnes pause at the Capitol in Washington. The twin lung transplant recipients are the subject of a new documentary that follows their efforts to spread awareness of organ donation benefits, notably in Japan, where resistance remains a barrier. (Film stills courtesy Twin Triumph Productions)

A new film that tells the story of sibling transplant recipients is now showing at the Laemmle Sunset 5.

“The Power of Two,” the inspirational tale of San Francisco Bay Area-based twins who refuse to let a disabling and life-shortening illness get in the way of their quest for a better life, will begin its world premiere run in Los Angeles.

The documentary will be screened at the Laemmle Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., on Friday, Aug. 19, at 12:15 and 7:20 p.m.; Saturday, Aug. 20, at 4:55 and 9:45 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 21, at 12:15 and 4:35 p.m.; Monday, Aug. 22, at 12:15 and 7:20 p.m.; Tuesday, Aug. 23, at 4:55 and 9:45 p.m.; Wednesday, Aug. 24, at 12:15 and 4:35 p.m.; and Thursday, Aug. 25, at 12:15 and 7:20 p.m.

Isabel “Isa” Yuriko Stenzel Byrnes and Anabel “Ana” Mariko Stenzel are biracial twin sisters born with cystic fibrosis but gifted with gaman — the Japanese word for perseverance — which has helped them thrive despite their disease. Called to action by their life-saving double-lung transplants, they strive to help those still in need of organ transplants and those suffering from CF to live improved lives.

The directorial debut of Oscar-nominated producer Marc Smolowitz (“The Weather Underground”), the film is inspired by the Stenzels’ memoir, “The Power of Two: A Twin Triumph Over Cystic Fibrosis.” The documentary takes the viewer into the home lives of the twins and the constant medical care they were compelled to undertake; then to their crusade in Japan, where CF is rare and organ transplantation a cultural taboo; and finally thriving with their new lungs and mentoring others on the same path while also experiencing some of their own unexpected life milestones.

“The Power of Two” is premiering theatrically in both New York and Los Angeles as part of the International Documentary Association’s 15th annual DocuWeeks Theatrical Showcase. The film will open in New York on Aug. 26. Screenings are also planned for Boulder, Colo.; San Francisco; Richmond, Va.; Washington, D.C.; Akron, Ohio; San Diego (late October, date TBA); Santa Fe, N.M.; and St. George, Utah.

This 2010 photo shows Isabel, left, and Ana as they helped decorate the Donate Life Rose Parade float. They are holding photos of two of their organ donors, Xavier Cervantes, left, and James Dorn. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

With three double-lung transplants between them, the sisters present a picture of resilience and fortitude, and a window into the plight of sufferers of cystic fibrosis, an inherited disease that causes a thick, sticky mucus to form in the lungs, pancreas and other organs. In the lungs, this mucus blocks the airways, causing lung damage and making it hard to breathe. There is no cure for CF; for many CF sufferers, including the Stenzel twins, lung transplantation is the only route to survival.

As viewers learn from one of the film’s many experts, Dr. Francis Collins — director of the National Institutes of Health and co-discoverer of the cystic fibrosis gene — CF is the most widespread, potentially fatal genetic disease among people of northern European descent; the sisters, born to a Japanese mother and German father, together have formed a united front against their affliction.  Being twins and being sick was “transformative” when they were younger, says Ana Stenzel. “We became our own friends, teachers, personal therapists.”

Smolowitz’s documentary takes the viewer further into their remarkable story and adulthood — their emergence as authors, athletes (at the National Kidney Foundation U.S. Transplant Games, for instance) and as advocates.

Augmenting the story of the Stenzels is their younger friend Anna Modlin, whose survival depends on a long-sought pair of donor lungs; Anna’s mother, Robin, who reflects on the experience of having a child with CF; and a Japanese father, Kazuyuki Tanaka, whose choice to donate his daughter’s organs made continued life possible for a number of people. “Seven of her organs are now glistening like jewels across the country,” he says through tears.

At the crux of a rising movement to change laws and stigmas, Ana and Isa embarked on a 10-city tour of Japan to inspire change in the hearts and minds of a culture resistant to transplantation. While Japan is a wealthy, medically advanced nation, it is the industrialized nation with the lowest rates of organ donation due to religious and cultural beliefs as well as ethical concerns tainting the first heart transplant in Japan.

Fundraisers solicit donations in Fukuoka, Japan. Government regulations and social stigmas have hampered efforts to make transplants widely available in Japan.

Though organ donation is much more common in the U.S. than in Japan, according to recent statistics, 110,000 Americans currently need life-saving organ transplants and an average of 18 men, women and children die each day while waiting for an organ. While the number of organ donors in the U.S. is increasing overall, only 37 percent of Americans 18 and over are registered donors.

“Any individual or family can be impacted by an acute or chronic illness whereby organ donation and transplant might be the only solution available to save a person’s life,” Smolowitz says. “ ‘The Power of Two’ shows audiences that when our health-care systems work, they can actually save patients’ lives. It also reminds us that by saying ‘yes’ to organ donation, we’re all implicated in one of the most universal decisions a person can make to save the life of another.”

Featuring archival footage and probing expert interviews, the film presents a multi-faceted portrayal of triumphs in modern medicine and also a society at a medical tipping point. It examines in detail the relationships between individual CF sufferers, relationships between organ recipients and their donor families, and even the spiritual bond between the recipients and the deceased donors, who have made a better life attainable through their own act of generosity.

For more information, visit www.ThePowerOfTwoMovie.com/DocuWeeks. The Laemmle Sunset 5 can be reached at (310) 478-3836.

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