Last month, we talked about a special that aired on the W Network titled About Her, a documentary telling the first person accounts of several young women facing down a potentially terminal form of breast cancer. This documentary could not have been made without the support of the people at Rethink Breast Cancer (now entering its 10th anniversary year, and the film festival they put on every year, Breast Fest.
Starting this Friday at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum and running until Sunday, Breast Fest kicks off its fourth year bringing films to the city showing different sides of the cancer experience. Beginning with fashion photographer David Jay’s film Baring It All (a photo essay and documentary where he follows women involved with the Pulitzer Prize nominated Scar Project) and ending with About Her on Sunday afternoon, the festival will not only screen five feature films, but will also include shorts, panels with Hollywood and Canadian film pundits talking about cancer, and a special focus on the recent wealth of television shows and films that look at the lighter side of a terrible disease.
Criticize This! talked to Breast Fest’s artistic director Michelle Rothstein about just what goes into the film selection process and what the recent success of films like 50/50 and other cancer comedies mean to the festival.
Andrew Parker: What kind of challenges do you guys face when you set out to put this festival on every year? Has it gotten any easier since you started?
Michelle Rothstein: It’s funny you should ask that because in some ways yes and in other ways no. At the beginning of the year every year when I start searching for films I start thinking that I’m afraid that I’m not going to find anything and that the last year we had so many great films and how I’m going to do it all. Then slowly but surely things start popping up and I’m always amazed by the quality of films that are available out there year after year. Even though I’m always on top of these films all the time, I’m always surprised when I find something new. It’s been great because I constantly have content to go to that I didn’t know I would have. So that’s somewhat easier because I know what to look for now and people are starting to get to know us. Everybody knows that we’re always searching for breast cancer films or any cancer films for that matter, so that becomes easier as word of mouth spreads.
But then the challenge always, for any festival on the planet, is getting bums in seats. So we want to make sure that year after year when it’s not the first time ever, that you’re constantly presenting something new so that people can get into this amazing and educational outreach program because we really, really want people to become engaged with the cause and build a sense of community and we want to do it through film. We want all different types of people to come out to these, so we do lots of outreach to different communities, and that’s not hard, but it’s something that we have to do every single year. We’re not TIFF, and I gotta tell you that even they have to work hard to get people into most of their screenings because there’s always so much to do in Toronto in the evening, so what are you offering people that’s a better alternative to going out to dinner with friends or going to see some live music? It’s a big city, and that’s the challenge.
AP: The films in this festival do focus on the shared experiences of different communities and different approaches to cancer. Is it more of a challenge to find different perspectives rather than necessarily finding different movies?
MR: I wouldn’t say it’s a challenge. I think that’s the wrong word. I think it’s just something we’re mindful of. We know exactly what we’ve shown every single year. For instance, last year we had a phenomenal film that touched on environmental links to breast cancer, and this year we also had a great film come across our desks which I’m holding onto and we aren’t going to show this year because we had already gone deeply into the environmental links last year. We thought, let’s wait, because there’s other subject matter from the community that we hear has been missing, and we want to address those first.
One of the one’s we were always searching for was one dealing specifically with aboriginal women. We were looking for a few years for that subject matter because we hear from the community that their needs are extremely unique and very, very different. You’ve got cultural differences in approaches to healing, as well as accessibility since a lot of aboriginal women live in remote areas. When we came across One of the One Percent (screening Sunday at 11am) we jumped at it, and now we also have a panel associated with it, as well. Something like that we always keep our eyes open for and we’re thankful that we can touch all the things that have been missing in the breast cancer conversation. Well, not always missing, but not necessarily prevalent.
One of the key components to our mission is to inspire dialog, and if we’re not telling new stories and we’re not having the harder conversations, we don’t feel like we’re doing what we set out to do. We want to do something different that brings up the ideas and notions that don’t always get as much airtime. They may not make it. Breast cancer’s out there a lot, and we know that, but there’s always these stories that don’t make it to the fore.
AP: You guys might have it a little bit easier than in year’s past since a lot of films and television shows have been dealing with cancer in a bit of a lighter vein.
MR: Yeah, that was sort of kismet. We’ve always wanted to showcase comedy, and we have shown comedic things before, but we’ve wanted to add more if we could, because we’re with these women all the time and they’re just like any other human beings in that they’re extremely dynamic, so there is always humour and sadness, but we always wanted more comedy and we set out to find that at the beginning of the year.
The Big C and other television shows and movies have used elements of cancer and comedy together, but then in the fall when we had already known that we were doing this 50/50 became a hit. Then all of a sudden every piece we start seeing is about comedy and cancer and it’s cool that we kind of became a part of the cultural zeitgeist at the moment. We’re so happy about this. And by adding our comedy night Tits N’ Sass (Saturday 8 p.m.) I think we’re really sending this message home that this isn’t what you think it’s going to be. It’s going to be a very diverse festival where you’re gonna laugh, and learn, and meet people, and you’re going to be challenged.
AP: In addition to the comedy night, you guys also have a panel discussion on Sunday about comedy and cancer with some recognizable names for speakers. How did that come together?
MR: Again, we wanted to open up the dialog so the panel took the form of asking how cancer, this tragic thing, a life and death situation where even if you survive it’s still horrific and were still very much in the middle ages when it comes to treatment; chemotherapy is brutal and radiation is brutal, so why use comedy? We wanted to take not necessarily an academic approach to it, but a more pop cultural approach to the question.
We we’re looking for some great and talented people to sit in on it, so Richard Crouse, the CTV film critic agreed to do it and he’s phenomenal. We are so excited to have him as the moderator. I’ve watched him for years and I think he’s incredible at his job. He really loves his job and he knows a lot about pop culture so I think he’s the perfect man for the job.
We’ve also got Tania Katan coming in from Phoenix, who’s a young woman who’s had breast cancer who had her own one woman show about her struggles and she tours around and she’s hilarious. Then we Allison Lane, who is actually featured in the movie we executive produced and is the closing night film, About Her, and she’s a riot. We knew her through our programs out in Calgary. We had her coming out for the film, anyway, but we thought it would be great to include her here, too. She’s also performing with Tania on the comedy night, as well.
Then we’ve got Mike McGowan, a Canadian director who used hints of comedy and sweetness in his film One Week. They’re all going to talk about what goes into doing something like that. You know, where’s the line and when do you cross it and why you even do it. I’m hoping we get a lot of people attending that. It’s a great one for students and a great conversation for anyone interested in popular culture. It’s a great conversation and introduction to BreastFest.
For tickets and more information on Breast Fest 2011, visit breastfestfilmfest.com.
Top image: A scene from Baring it All. Courtesy Breast Fest.