Professor of Journalism Geri Alumit Zeldes directed and produced “That Strange Summer,” which captured the story in the 1970s of two Filipino nurses charged with killing patients in the Veterans Administration Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich. Zeldes’ documentary recently won a Merit Award for Best Independent Producer from the Michigan Association of Broadcasters as well as an Award of Excellence from the Broadcast Education Association.
“It’s crazy this film is getting attention,” said Zeldes. “It’s not about the production value of the film. It’s not that it was beautifully shot or edited. It’s about how it’s a unique story. Not many have heard about the case, and I can’t believe it happened.”
A Story Unlike Any Other
“That Strange Summer” is an hour-long documentary film about a series of mysterious incidents in July and August 1975, when dozens of patients at the VA Hospital in Ann Arbor experienced sudden respiratory failure and ten of the patients died. After an intense FBI investigation, two Filipino nurses, Filipina Narciso and Leonora Perez, were charged, tried and convicted of injecting patients with a lethal drug called Pavulon.
The documentary unfolds this complicated story of the U.S. v. Narciso and Perez case that showed how two Filipino women with no prior criminal records were convicted by an all-white jury. Citing prosecutorial misconduct, the federal court judge in the case ordered for a new trial to take place that never occurred, thereby freeing the nurses.
“I was really shocked and taken aback because I grew up in Flint and my mom is a physician, and six of my aunts are nurses who emigrated from the Philippines,” said Zeldes. “In the 1970s, I grew up in the area and even went to the University of Michigan, but during that time I never heard about this case.”
How it All Started
In 2011, Zeldes had just finished several documentaries, including the Kings of Flint, when MSU Professor Roger Bresnahan suggested the idea for “That Strange Summer.”
“It really bugged the heck out me that I didn’t know this story,” said Zeldes. “It kept me up at night, which I think is my test to determine if a story is a story for me.”
To get started, Zeldes worked with students to search through archives of old newspapers and microfilm to help piece the story together.
“There wasn’t much about the case outside of newspaper stories,” said Zeldes. “There was only one book that mentioned it when we were filming, but now there’s two. I saw it as my opportunity to contribute to Filipino-American history.”
Ready, Set, Action
After researching the case, Zeldes began interviewing FBI agents and journalists talked about how the events unfolded.
“My favorite part of this documentary was working with students to interview sources who vividly recalled this event that took place nearly 30-40 years ago,” said Zeldes.
However, not everyone was willing to come talk about the case.
“What still is the most depressing part of this is that I made assumptions that because I was Filipino that the nurses would talk to me, but they didn’t,” said Zeldes. “They spent 40 years trying to forget this case and didn’t want to relive it. This is what keeps the film from becoming great. It’s good, but being able to talk to the nurses would have really made it better.”
By Sierra Richards