This is a repost of an interview with the director Lea Pool and producer Ravida Din of the terrific and anger producing documentary Pink Ribbons that was conducted shortly after last fall's Toronto Film Festival. The film opens in the US tomorrow.
Women and Hollywood: I find it interesting that women I know who have had cancer who have done any activism in their lives are repelled by the whole pink culture, yet it really speaks to many women and men around the world. Why do you think the pink campaign has become so effective?
Léa Pool: Everybody has someone in their life that has breast cancer. It touches femininity, motherhood and sexuality and as Barbara Brenner says in the film, "you get to say breast out loud in public." Big corporations know this and market in a particular way knowing that women make most of the buying decisions in a household. Breast cancer fundraising in October therefore has an incredible potential to capitalize on this fact for both good and bad. Pink culture is presented in a positive, pink and gentle way bordering on the thinking that we are "close" to finding a cure. This does not reflect today’s reality of more women dying around the world from this disease and the lack of real progress.
Ravida Din: When you have giant corporations that give you a one track message of “finding a cure” or of “hope” it can give the public a false sense that someone is looking after their health interest and some cases even managing their health. As Judy Brady points out in the film, "these are comforting lies…" Some people don’t want to know that very little progress has been made. It is in the same way that companies are selling their products (i.e. the billion dollar cosmetic industry), they can package the message of femininity and normalization around this disease. There’s a long history of subsidized philanthropy – particularly in the USA – and again the public has come to expect corporations to play a role in their social welfare. It’s become easy for some companies to profit from citizen goodwill and volunteerism. The pink campaign has also served to “normalize” and depoliticize the disease and that makes it less threatening for a LOT of companies to jump onboard and claim breast cancer as their cause.
WaH: It seems that what you are saying is that this whole culture is missing the point and that more of the focus should be on prevention and not on post-diagnosis. Is that true?
LP: Yes this for me is true, I strongly believe that a lot more could be done about prevention. In the making of the film, what we were able to track in terms of funding is that only 15% goes to prevention and 5% toward research based on environmental causes. Janet Collins in the film queries, “How can you cure what you don’t know the cause of…."
RD: Those of us who have gone through breast cancer treatment will say “yes” ..we absolutely need to focus on prevention. I never want my daughter to go through what I have gone through…never.
WaH: What was the most startling thing you learned during this process?
LP: Two things that I learned was the voices of the women featured in the film who have been working on this cause have tried to change the conversation. So the film serves to give all the players in the fight against breast cancer a voice but really puts these incredible women together in one place.
The second thing I learned was the lack of coordination in research projects in the world and therefore you will have gaps in what we could possibly learn from these research projects.
RD: The impression I got during the research and interview process was that they are trying to own the disease and therefore own the cause which can ultimately be more profitable for some corporations and fund-raising groups. How can anyone own a disease? I was also startled at the level of hypocrisy. How can a leading make up company not sign onto the “Campaign for Safe Cosmetics” and at the same time promote itself as leading the fight against breast cancer?
WaH: What was the hardest part of making this film?
LP: To allow the film to speak for itself, hence my decision not to use a narrator. Another challenge was to find the cinematic approach to make a film that audiences will want to see in the theatres no matter who they are as cancer touches almost everybody in some way.
RD: The sheer scope of the subject. All of the issues – environment, ethics, medical intricacies of the disease itself, history of treatment, activism, etc. are inextricably linked. Dr. Samantha King’s book, Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy which the National Film Board of Canada obtained the rights to for this documentary was very helpful. The book served as a good framework for the film and kept a strong focus on the marketing and selling of the disease.