Creating a Force Through Film
Sisters Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern collaborate for change
For more than a decade, twin sisters Nancy Stern, J86, and Lisa Lax, J86, worked at rival television networks. Two and a half years ago they joined forces to create Lookalike Productions, and together they produced Emmanuel’s Gift.
Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, the title character of their first feature-length documentary film, was born with a severely deformed leg in a country where the disabled are often killed or abandoned at birth. To defy the misconception in Ghana that a disability is a curse, Yeboah learned how to ride a bicycle with only one leg. Using a mountain bike donated to him by the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), he later rode more than 600 kilometers across Ghana, proving to everyone that people with disabilities are not second-class citizens, and indeed can be exceptional.
Bob Babbitt, the founder of CAF, told Lax about Yeboah’s story. Babbitt had worked with Lax during the Ironman Triathlon and thought she might be interested.
“We were immediately inspired,” Lax says of the sisters’ reaction. “We decided to shoot almost immediately.”
They envisioned Yeboah’s story would make a nice five-minute news magazine piece. But, ultimately, the five minutes turned into 400 hours of footage, filmed in Ghana, New York, Oregon, and California.
“Every time we met Emmanuel the story kept getting better and more compelling,” says Lax.
Moments captured in this film include Emmanuel’s first steps on two legs after receiving a prosthetic leg, and a ceremony at the king of Ghana’s palace to honor Emmanuel—the first time ever in the history of Ghana that a king invited a disabled person to his palace.
On the same day as this ceremony, the Free Wheelchair Mission partnered with Yeboah to give away 100 wheelchairs to the disabled citizens of Ghana. Men and women of all ages are filmed literally crawling on their hands and knees to receive their chairs, their legs too mangled to walk on. Hoisting themselves into their wheelchairs for the first time, their faces look into the camera with absolute exuberance.
“I had to put my camera down because tears were streaming down my cheeks,” Lax recalls. “It was a powerful film moment, but it was also a powerful personal moment.”
Lax and Stern got their first taste of film while attending Tufts and interning at WBZ-TV, where they worked with sportscasters Bob Lobel and Mike Dowling. Both sisters were already passionate about sports, and were named all-American lacrosse and all-New England tennis players.
“But we knew we couldn’t play professionally, so we figured we would love to still be a part of it. Through our internship, we learned we really loved the medium of television,” says Stern.
Stern began her career at ABC News as a desk assistant for Nightline, but quickly moved into the sports department, where she was the first woman to produce the Tour de France. At ABC Sports she racked up an array of projects, including coverage of the Nancy Kerrigan/Tanya Harding scandal, the 1988 Winter Olympics, and Monday Night Football. In 1995, Stern segued into entertainment, joining the staff of ABC Daytime, and for the past six years she has executive produced various television shows under the banner Jumbolaya Productions.
Lax started out as a production assistant, associate director, and feature producer of Later with Bob Costas. From there, she moved to NBC Sports, where she served as a producer/director for 12 years. Her accomplishments during her tenure include overseeing the production of Olympic Films/Profiles for NBC’s coverage of the Atlanta, Sydney, and Salt Lake City Olympic Games. She also produced and directed the Emmy Award–winning coverage of the 1999 Ironman Triathlon World Championships, and served as lead producer for NBC’s coverage of the inaugural WNBA season.
Stern and Lax have earned a combined total of 16 Emmy Awards. In recognition of their accomplishments, both sisters have been honored with the Tufts Distinguished Achievement Award. Stern received the award this year and Lax in 2002.
“Our participation in sports and being completely passionate about something like we were with athletics at Tufts has played into our careers,” says Stern.
Narrated by Oprah Winfrey, Emmanuel’s Gift opened nationally this past October and has received a number of awards, including the Activist Spirit Award at the Activist Film Festival; Outstanding Achievement in Filmmaking-Humanitarian Vision Award at the Newport Beach International Film Festival; Silver Remi award for Theatrical Feature at the WorldFest Houston International Film Festival; and the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Newport Beach International Film Festival, Cinequest Film Festival, and Atlanta Film Festival.
Since the film’s completion, Lax and Stern continue to work with Yeboah to raise awareness and resources for the disabled in Ghana. One of their main goals is to get a disability bill passed by Ghana’s government.
“I think the disability bill will be passed by the end of the year, but there’s a lot that still needs to be done,” says Stern.
But if there’s one thing the sisters have learned from this whole experience, it’s that “no matter how crazy of an idea you have, if you have enough passion for it and enough desire and ingenuity, you can somehow accomplish it.”