Bad blood over a documentary about tainted plasma led Slamdance to stanch last Sunday’s premiere of “Factor Eight: The Arkansas Prison Blood Scandal.”
The fest pulled the pic after a federal judge leveled an injunction against its director, Kelly Duda, in a dispute over ownership of the footage used in the film.
The legal tourniquet was applied by Michael Galster, who helped unearth a scandal in which hemophiliacs in Canada got sick from using plasma harvested from Arkansas prison inmates infected with HIV or hepatitis C.
Galster said he spent years compiling footage for his own documentary and then paid Duda to shoot it. When the film was nearly complete, Galster said, Duda walked off with the footage, including hours of interviews with prisoners who participated in the plasma program, many of whom have since died.
Duda denied Galster’s claims and said it was wrong to silence a worthy film. “I did all the research, I produced the film, directed it and did the interviews,” he said.
Galster persuaded the judge to quash the premiere and order Duda to fork over all footage to the court until trial. Meanwhile, Galster has made a separate deal with a trio of Hollywood producers for an “Erin Brockovich”-style feature about the plasma scandal.
Though the judge noted that Duda added some footage to Galster’s film, he wrote that the content “is substantially similar to the plaintiff’s version of the film at the time the defendant stopped working for the plaintiff and appropriated the plaintiff’s property.”
Duda replied: “Galster claims I was paid as a worker for hire, but you ask him for a copy of the contract, and he says it got burned in a fire. He was a contributor along with others who wanted to see the issue told, and now he wants to hijack the whole thing. It is odd to have Daily Variety writing about a film I cannot show. I was hoping for a review, and for the voices of the victims to be heard.”
The plasma scandal has largely been ignored by U.S. media, and both Galster and Duda said it’s ironic that the issue is finally getting attention because of their dispute. Galster worked in Arkansas prisons in the late 1970s as an independent contractor who made prosthetic limbs. He regularly saw sick inmates donating plasma, often several times per week.
Galster said he figured a filtering system was used, but years later, when he read an article about Canadian hemophiliacs catching AIDS and hepatitis C linked to Arkansas blood, he remembered that prison plasma. He covertly did his own investigation, hoping to stop blood brokers who were making millions of dollars shipping tainted plasma around the world and prison officials who turned a blind eye to the risks.
Galster blew the whistle, and the Canadian government responded. A billion-dollar settlement was made to victims and their families, and criminal prosecutions have resulted.
Producers Elizabeth Fowler, Pat Dollard and Ryan Kavanaugh think the story has high movie appeal. They’ve bought Galster’s life rights as well as “Blood Trail,” a novelized account of the scandal Galster wrote years ago under a pseudonym.
Dollard, who manages Steven Soderbergh, said Galster’s story of personal risk and sacrifice makes him a strong protagonist.
String of disasters
While Galster was putting heat on the blood brokers, he got death threats. His underinsured prosthetics factory mysteriously burned to the ground. His wife left, and his family nearly fell apart. And then, Galster said, Duda left with the documentary footage.
Galster said he filed suit last December after he heard Duda’s voice on his car radio, telling an NPR interviewer about the film and Slamdance premiere plans.
“The hardest part of this case is that the families of the victims have condemned me for not allowing that film to be shown,” Galster said. “All I can say is: Let justice be done and the issue will be shown in a way that is more grand and honest than they dreamed.”