Dialogues With Allie Light
I mentioned to a friend, who happens to be a breast cancer survivor, that I was going to interview documentary filmmaker Allie Light about her latest film, Rachel's Daughters: Searching for the Causes of Breast Cancer. Here's the question you have to ask her, said my friend, 10 years away from her own diagnosis and successful treatment: Why is it that breast cancer patients, as a group, more than any other cancer population, quest so insistently for the cause of their disease?
Of course, any answer to the question of when the personal catalyzes the political would be speculative at best. Light guesses it's the desperation and sense of urgency, particularly in younger women, that creates focus. For her and partner Irving Saraf, it was their daughter's diagnosis with the disease four years ago at 39 that galvanized them to enlist seven breast cancer patients and follow them with a camera as they fanned out around the country -- like detectives -- questioning experts about the epidemic's suspected environmental antecedents. "Our films," Light explained in a telephone interview, "always evolve out of our lives." That was the case with the couple's 1991 Academy Award-winning In the Shadow of the Stars, which was spurred by Light's first, late husband and presented a singer's fascination with the opera. And it was Light's experience, in her late twenties, when she committed herself to a mental institution for depression, that led her to appear in front of -- as well as behind -- the camera in the couple's 1994 Emmy-winner, Dialogues With Madwomen.
Rachel's Daughters aired on HBO last October, and will be shown at the Alamo Drafthouse on Oct. 14 as part of the Texas Documentary Tour. Rachel is Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book, The Silent Spring, sounded one of the first alarms that the chemicals, like DDT, that we were so freely and optimistically dousing ourselves with might not be either the free lunch or the ticket to better living that we thought they'd be. That point is poignantly made in the film where, among many terrific splices of archival footage documenting our early, trusting embrace of technologies like crop-dusters and X-rays, is an early speech by Carson asking what will become of today's children. "Today's children," of course, are now grown and the "stars" of this film -- they're retracing Carson's largely unheeded footsteps. Carson herself later died of breast cancer.
As documentary filmmakers, Light and Saraf are known for pushing the envelope on both form and subject matter. In an expository genre that traditionally relies upon talking heads, voiceovers, and cinema vérité footage, the couple freely use fictional scenes and dramatic re-enactments to create visual metaphors. Even more unconventionally, they venture boldly into the inner lives of their subjects. "To us," says Light, "the documentary is an unscripted film with non-professional actors, and we're the storytellers. Our job is to use whatever tools are necessary to tell the story in a narrative, filmic way."
Austin Chronicle: Tell us a bit about the ways you've tweaked the documentary form.
Allie Light: Irving says our films are about the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. We've really gotten away from the old standard of documentary filmmaking, which was this "see and tell" kind of thing where you have stills and this typically patriarchal-sounding male voice telling you what you're looking at. We try to make our films more like dramatic fiction films, so that there is a lot of action taking place -- a narrative style, with a beginning, middle, and an end.
Rachel's Daughters is a departure from our other films in that we've relinquished our role as interviewers to the seven breast cancer patients. We did this because they are the ones with the most at stake -- they're the ones who are affected. But we think that interviewing is what we really do the best in our films.
AC: What distinguishes your interviewing style?
AL: Essentially, we try to empower the person whose story we're telling to feel that she's the one making the film -- we're just helping her. The person being interviewed is free to call "Cut," to tell us, later on -- we always show them what we've shot -- that they don't want us to use certain footage. People rarely ask us to take things out, though. We believe that everyone has the right to present themselves to the world in the way they think of themselves, even though this is not always, maybe, the way they are. But then you get into what's really true about documentary film and how much of it is the truth and how many truths there are. And who's to say?
AC: One of the most evocative scenes in Rachel's Daughters and one particularly emblematic of your filmmaking style is the closing scene where you've assembled a large group of women dressed in black veils and mourning clothes on a beautiful golden hillside on a sunny day, and over this scene you've superimposed the terrifying breast cancer mortality statistics. Tell us how you came to use this scene.
AL: During the course of making the film, four of the women died; in fact, the film opens at the funeral of one of them. So by the time you get to the end, the audience feels a need to mourn, which is what this scene provides. There are a lot of women on that hillside who have breast cancer and a lot who know women who have died. Two of my daughters appear in the scene. We bused in women from all over; everyone got their black outfits together, we provided the veils, and we just made a wonderful day of it on this hillside outside of San Francisco.
AC: Tell us a bit about how you justify the use of fictionalized scenes like this one in a documentary.
AL: This scene and, for another example, the scene with the bald woman undergoing radiation treatment running through the landscape in a hospital gown with a voiceover of Susan Love [surgeon and activist], describing, in a speech, the current treatments for a disease with an as-yet unknown cause, as "slash, burn, and poison" -- these we call "emotional equivalents." The scene does not depict what the voiceover is talking about but rather its emotional equivalent. They give the audience a chance to project emotionally into the story. Another example that comes to mind is in Dialogues With Madwomen, in the scene where I was talking about being so anxious, in the days before my hospital commitment, that one of my children might die, that I used to go to bed with the car keys under my pillow. Now this anxiety could have been dramatized literally, by showing someone trying to start a car but, instead, we used a metaphor -- a scene of a woman running down a hill, at night, with her baby clutched to her chest and you see the blanket. It just makes for a much better image than if you try to copy what's being heard.
AC: What about your use of re-enactments?
AL: We use these because mostly documentaries are about the past -- there was no camera there. The best example for me of the effective use of a re-enactment was another scene in Dialogues, where I'm in front of the camera and talking about having been molested at the age of 4 in a basement. How could I give visualization to what I was describing? I hired a child actor and we shot the scene from her point of view -- you only see what she sees, the basement, out the basement windows, that sort of thing. You only see the part of the molester that she sees -- mid-body -- and you never see her face, only her hand as she is being led down to the basement. So often the audience is allowed to see only what's happening to the victim and not what the victim is seeing. I think this idea of who's looking and who's being seen in a scene is so important -- it's a feminist issue, I think.
Re-enactments and dreams and fantasies are the only way to show the interior lives of the people in your films. In a visual medium, you have to figure out a way to bring that to the screen.
AC: Don't most documentarians steer away from representing the interior lives of their subjects?
AL:They have in the past but I think it's happening more today and I think that's a really good change. Talking heads are just -- you know, I happen to think it's really wonderful to watch a face; I love to see somebody talking. But you just can't make a whole film of it.
AC: Did you find the answers you were looking for in Rachel's Daughters?
AL: The scariest thing was finding that there were no answers. I think we learned a lot about the environment from this film and about a very complex issue. For me, it was a very personal journey because I thought we were going to find a way to save our daughter. We threw ourselves into this project and there was never any separation between our life and our work. I would neverwant to do it again. We had a very emotionally difficult time making the film; we grew too close to the women. We didn't know we were going to lose some of the women so quickly. It was overwhelming.
AC: So why should women with the disease or those who, like myself, live in dread of it, want to see this film?
AL: The film is hopeful because it's revelatory and it demystifies science, the disease, and the environmental issues. Irving says that before making the film he had no idea science could be so exciting! Rachel's Daughters also shows simple changes that women can make -- in terms of diet and exercise, for example, to take charge of their bodies. It encourages activism and advocacy. Rachel's Daughters is a call to arms.
Rachel's Daughters: Searching for the Causes of Breast Cancer will be presented as part of the Texas Documentary Tour on Wednesday, October 14 at the Alamo Drafthouse, at 6:30 & 9pm; tickets for both shows go on sale at 6pm. Admission is $5 for the general public; $3.50 for Austin Film Society members and students. Allie Light and Irving Saraf will introduce the film and conduct a Q&A session after each screening. The Texas Documentary Tour is a co-presentation of the Austin Film Society, the University of Texas RTF Dept., The Austin Chronicle, and SXSW Film.