Six years ago, Liz Oakley, an award-winning Charleston filmmaker, couldn’t have imagined that a casual stroll down a dock would have changed her entire worldview. It sounds a little crazy, she admits, but it’s true. At the end of the pier was Margaret Logan, the leader of Dragon Boat Charleston, a unique team of local cancer survivors.

Dragon boating, a Chinese water sport comparable to American canoeing, was completely unfamiliar to Oakley, as were the individuals who made up the Charleston team. When Oakley and Logan met, though, the two instantly felt a connection. “I knew the moment I met Margaret how I would spend the next few years of my life,” Oakley says. 

A storyteller by nature, Oakley realized what sharing Logan’s tale could do for the survivors. “I had the opportunity to make a film that could change the way people think about cancer,” Oakley continues, “a film that could profoundly impact those living with, recovering from, or affected by the disease.”

And so, after six years in the company of Logan and Dragon Boat Charleston, Oakley has created her second feature length documentary, Awaken the Dragon, which will premiere on Sun. Nov. 13 at the All Sports Los Angeles Film Festival in North Hollywood, Calif.

Oakley experienced the type of power a documentary can possess with her first project, Sentencing the Victim, in 2002. The film, which focused on victims of gang rape, ultimately prompted a reform in South Carolina parole law. For Oakley, this created a desire to continue her fight for social justice, to reach people who would otherwise be isolated and alone with no chance to tell their stories. Showcasing individual tales of hope and determination in her new work, Awaken the Dragon captures the Dragon Boat Charleston’s three-year training period and all the grit, resilience, and companionship encompassed therein.

“Cancer is not selective,” Oakley explains. “It crosses every boundary, every race, every gender, and every age group.” Admittedly someone who sees both the disease and the world differently after the filmmaking process, Oakley’s dream is that Awaken the Dragon will redefine the devastating words, “You have cancer.”

“While the diagnosis is going to be life-changing,” she notes, “I want to let people know that there is hope, that life goes on. I want to show people a way to hit the start button again.”