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May 8, 2018

Geri Zeldes: The birth of 'That Strange Summer'

May 9, 2018

Geri Alumit Zeldes, professor of journalism, 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, Michigan. 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.

“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 10 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 a new trial to take place that never occurred, thereby freeing the nurses.

I am surprised the film is getting this kind of attention. The film has technical flaws in the composition and in the audio quality, but, I do think it is such a unique story, one that may be new to many.

I was really taken aback to learn about this story because I grew up in Flint, my mom is a physician and six of my aunts are nurses who emigrated from the Philippines. In the 1970s, I grew up just 50 miles from Ann Arbor and even attended the University of Michigan, but through the decades, I never heard about this case.

How It All Started

In 2011, I 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. 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, I 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. There was only one book that mentioned it when we were filming, but now there are two. I saw the documentary as my opportunity to contribute to Filipino-American history.

Ready, Set, Action

After researching the case, my students and I began interviewing FBI agents and journalists who talked about how the events unfolded; this was my favorite part of this documentary, working with students to interview sources who vividly recalled this event that took place nearly 30-40 years ago.

However, not everyone was willing to talk about the case.  

What still is the most depressing part is that I made assumptions that because I was Filipino, the nurses would talk to me, but they didn’t. They spent 40 years trying to forget this case and didn’t want to relive it. This is a limitation of the film. It’s good, but being able to talk to the nurses would have made it great.