CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 1 . . . . September 1, 2006
At My Mother's Breast is a film about the women -- four sisters and their daughters -- at the center of a Canadian family living with the devastation of their biological legacy - breast cancer. Heather Watson-Burgess is the film's director, writer, and narrator. As the 27-year-old daughter of a woman with breast cancer, she tells this true story in the first-person. Great care has been taken by Watson-Burgess to present subtly different experiences and points of view among the sisters and their daughters.
The central visual metaphor of the film is an old wooden barn on a prairie field with a smaller, yet equally weathered barn leaning toward it. As the narrator points out towards the film's end, both barns would collapse if the other weren't there. Even the slightly tilting large barn needs the support of the small one to remain upright.
One of the film's objectives appears to have been to lay out the story of these women, to function as a unique keepsake, a treasured album. It celebrates the life of Dorothy, one of Heather's aunts, as she succumbs to breast cancer despite a long, tenacious fight. Another purpose seems to have been to capture in time and place the essential qualities and relationships of all the women in this family who face their shared demon in ways that reflect stoicism, humour, grace, love, resilience and fear.
Through the use of video-diaries, we see that Heather is particularly determined (at least, for the filming of most of the story) not to let her own mother see to what extent she, herself, is and has been negatively affected by the disease. At one point, she confesses "privately" to the camera that she feels that she has “been there” for her mother more than her mother has reciprocated. Yet the daughter is generally reluctant to reveal to her mother the extent to which she, herself, actually feels stressed by the ongoing battle with the disease. We see clearly that the mother never gives up inquiring about the daughter's feelings.
The film can be seen as the film-maker's personal statement and record of how she feels about her own mother's threatened mortality. It may even be one of the many ways she is actively taking care of her mother and herself. Heather assumes many roles in the relationship between the two: problem-solver, child, parent, teacher, psychologist and care-giver. Ultimately, the daughter provides her mother with what the mother has sought continually. The video, itself, is Heather's answer to the "how are you feeling about this?" question. It is a unique response to the understated but ongoing mother-daughter power struggle. The daughter finally does "show and tell" her mother how she really feels by virtue of making this film.
A viewer could also see the film as one of the ways that the film-maker tries and succeeds in creating something of enduring value out of the ongoing stress and devastation. The daughter ultimately learns that she, herself, is not only a woman whose family members have inherited breast cancer, but she is, in reality, a capable woman who is a support system to her own mother. This lesson makes clear to us the reason for the tilting barns comparison.
The video begins and ends with images caught at an annual breast cancer fundraiser called "CIBC run for the cure." Other than these scenes, the film feels like a "memory project" that was made in days long gone. Watson-Burgess explains that it was fear that prevented the great-grandmother in the family from getting early and life-prolonging diagnosis of the illness. She had died at 45. The living women, old and young alike, still appear to be very fearful and, for the most part, relatively powerless over the potential loss of more lives in the family. In fact, they behave as though they have very few choices in the ways they might act decisively to avoid any new breast-cancer diagnoses and too accepting of this perception.
There is relatively little attention in this film given to the current statistics in Canada, the state of cutting-edge breast cancer research in 2005, the range of methods being used to prevent and fight breast cancer, the risk factors for the disease and whether or not there is even a genetic test for finding out if one has inherited breast cancer. Early mastectomy as a way of decisively preventing the disease is not explored at length as an important option for the younger women in this film. The younger women don't appear to "get that," and one laughingly says she is still using her breasts.
As a film about breast cancer in Canada today, I think the film is too resigned and laid-back. The women portrayed are too accepting and passive about their fate. Apparently only one women has used mastectomy to prevent getting breast cancer. The others seem to be crossing their fingers it won't be them who is next diagnosed. No one seems angry enough to question the choices made by the older women or to even get visibly angry at all. Many relevant questions go unasked and unanswered. In how many affected Canadian women is breast cancer an issue of genetic susceptibility vs. a randomly distributed event? How do ovarian cancer rates compare to breast cancer rates in the general population? To what extent has the environment been implicated? In what ways might the environment figure into the equation? How could this be turned around? What are the known causes of breast cancer? What are the suspected causes of breast cancer? How many men get breast cancer? To what extent do factors such as smoking, diet and sedentary life-styles affect the rates of breast cancer? Where does gene therapy fit into the bigger picture? Where is the best research in the country being conducted? Will radical mastectomy be enough to prevent the disease? Why don't the women in this family ever get really angry? Where are the kayaks and the dragon boats?
Teachers of senior level high-school and college students would be rewarded by using this film as a springboard to research projects that focus on the above issues. Social workers and psychologists should note that breast-cancer survivor support groups could derive much of value from viewing and discussing the movie and different individuals' reactions to it. After showing this film, groups should be challenged to find and document their answers to the question: "What is missing from this story?"
Cathy Vincent-Linderoos is a retired teacher living in London, ON, and a member of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities (AODA) Alliance.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.