To call a film “deceptively simple” usually means it is neither, and it’s an inefficient way to describe something. But the filmmakers of “Speaking for Themselves: seven women – their experiences with cancer” are so hands-off one wonders if they are there at all.
With no voice-over narration and no inter-titles, not even so much as a cutaway, the film relies on nothing but the subjects’ oral histories and confessions to present the experience of coping with cancer.
The Women’s Cancer Resource Center is presenting a free screening of “Speaking for Themselves” at the Fine Arts Cinema on Saturday at 4 p.m.
Patrons of the Fine Arts checking their screening schedules will notice this show isn’t listed. It came together only after a WCRC staff member noticed the film at the recent San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
The WCRC called the festival, hoping to add a copy of the video to their resource library. To their surprise, they learned German filmmakers Gesine Meerwein and Katharina Gruber are visiting Berkeley right now.
As a result of some fast phone calls and quick e-mailing, Meerwein and Gruber will be in attendance at the Fine Arts Cinema to talk with the audience about cancer, and, no doubt, their unique interviewing style.
Meerwein calls it “biographical interviewing,” a technique she learned in a workshop in Germany. As she described it, sitting on the couch of a friend’s home in west Berkeley where she and Gruber are staying, it’s not really interviewing, per se, but creating an environment conducive to intimacy, and capturing it on video.
Women with cancer – mostly breast cancer, and most had undergone mastectomies – sat in front of the filmmaker’s video camera and talked about their post-operation body image, their relationships doctors and lovers, and the fight to decide upon their medical procedures.
That’s what made it into the 108-minute film. During the shoot they talked for hours and hours about a hundred other topics, with little or no direction from the people behind the camera.
Meerwein said some of the monologues got right to the issue of cancer, and others spent hours slowly building up to their feelings about cancer through rambling detours of childhood memory. It’s a therapy dream, and an editing nightmare.
“It’s important to have a lot of time because it was a process for them,” said Meerwein of the exhausting marathon shooting sessions. “You say things you didn’t plan.”
She knows what the hot seat feels like, because she was on both sides of the camera. Meerwein herself is one of the seven subjects, with a “biographical interview” relating her experience with uterine cancer.
“I know more about the setting, and making it comfortable,” she said, describing herself as a versuchskaninchen, or “test rabbit.”
The women were encouraged to bring personal objects to the interview process to feel more relaxed. One woman brought two suitcases full of personal items to the set, including a 4-foot stuffed, pink caterpillar toy which she held on her lap and stroked throughout the interview.
The strength of “Speaking for Themselves” is right there in its title. The method befits the message of women taking control of their own recovery. Many tell of the decision, made with apparent personal deliberation, to live. The way the women talked of doctors and loved ones, pushing them into biopsies, chemotherapy, and mastectomies, implied the diagnostic treatments moved faster than they were willing to accept physically and emotionally.
“Every woman is looking for her own way,” said Meerwein, who admitted she was horrified to learn one of the subjects wanted chemotherapy, a process Meerwein considers more harmful than helpful.
Meerwein, in the film, describes her decision to wait while the cancerous tumor in her uterus grew. In one particularly icky description, she says she could feel the tumor with her fingers expanding through her cervix. More lighthearted sequences in the film portray the subjects talking together and comparing mastectomy scars. And, like a girlish slumber party, flinging prosthetic breasts across the room and trying on each other’s bras.
Meerwein and Gruber, having never made a film or video previously, were inspired after seeing “Dialogues with Mad Women,” by Bay Area Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Allie Light. “She gave all the space to the women,” said Meerwein, who can describe this open-handed interviewing technique in German, but has difficulty finding the English words. “It was distant, but not personal. Not at all voyeuristic.”
For more information about the screening, or about the Women’s Cancer Resource Center in Berkeley, call the WCRC at 510-548-9286.