Having dealt with breast cancer in my family after losing my maternal grandmother to what started out as breast cancer and eventually mestastized into bone marrow cancer, I know first hand the effects that breast cancer can have on an individual and their family. I had the wonderful and insightful eye-opening experience of previewing the documentary “Beauty and the Breast” by Director Liliana Komorowska.
Guitarists Melissa Etheridge and Sheryl Crow have themselves been victims of this horrible disease. Most recently, Angelina Jolie decided to take have a double mastectomy to avoid the disease due to testing positive for the BRCA gene. In October of 2012, Jewel was the an advocate for Breast Reconstruction Awareness Day (BRA Day).
This documentary follows the lives of nine brave females coping with the harsh reality of breast cancer…some making the decision to pursue double mastectomies and chemotherapy, while others chose to treat the disease holistically. As October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I felt it was important to address the issue that women and their families and friends face in dealing with this ugly disease, from seclusion to disfiguration to acceptance (mostly their own acceptance).
Director Liliana Komor0wska brings this important disease to the forefront and candidly portrays the life of cancer patients. While difficult at times, she had a passion to empower these women and others facing this disease and to inspire women to feel feminine and sexy in their own skin.
We chatted with Liliana on her passion for bringing this important disease and it’s impact on those affected to the masses.
GGM: What was your inspiration that led to this powerful body of work?
Liliana: The story of “Beauty and the Breast” began five years ago, the day I met Soraya, an ex-model and a mother of two young children. Soraya, at 39, was in the middle of her struggle with breast cancer. I was touched by the uplifting story of this breast cancer patient, who came to me with some material she shot while going through Chemotherapy, and wanted to help. With her approval, I followed her with my camera. The project expanded as I reached out to other women suffering with the disease. Their confessions, so authentic and inspiring, turned into a unique body of testimonies, a documentary. It depicts the journeys of these nine women as they go through this life changing experience. It is a tribute to their life, the force that exists inside all of us. I believe that we never know how strong we can be until the times comes when we are tested.
When you are tackling the subject of breast cancer, which is universal, it touches everybody in a different way. We cannot pass by indifferently as another victim suffers through breast cancer. I hope the audience of this documentary with leave with an uplifting feeling.
GGM: How did you find your participants that were willing to come forth to share their stories in such raw and open ways?
Liliana: It’s an important film to me. The first time I realized that I am at risk of getting breast cancer is when I met Soraya. I am a woman over 50 and both of my grandmothers died of cancer before I was born. As a result, I have missed their presence all my life. When I saw how breast cancer had impacted this woman, I felt compelled to put all my energy into dealing with the disease and bringing a different perspective to it on screen. I followed nine women fighting this horrifying disease. Without my own personal experience of dealing with the disease, I realized it might be a challenge to create an insightful portrait of survival…but I was willing to try.
Survivors, cancer patients and the people helping these women influenced my thinking and inspired me to get to work and make this film.
Soraya, a former model, has retained all of her beauty and grace. She is as dynamic, vivacious and full of life as she was before breast cancer threatened her whole existence. In January 2008, she discovered that she had cancer in her left breast and needed an immediate mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatments. I met Soraya when she was on the mission to demystify chemotherapy for those diagnosed with breast cancer; especially trying to reach those who reject it or doubt its value.
Soraya introduced me to Lucie, a 39 year old model, singer and passionate equestrian. After being misdiagnosed for years, Lucie was told that she had breast cancer next to her breast implants at the age of 39. Initially, she was only willing to go through a lumpectomy, followed by another minor surgical intervention designed to remove more breast tissue, combined with aggressive chemo.
She was willing to be a part of the film with her friend Valerie, a survivor. We witness Lucie’s journey: her struggles and victories as she struggles to overcome the greatest obstacle life threw in her path. Her husband Alain and her best friends support her in the fight, but her true deliverance comes from her passion for horseback riding. Horses save her life on an everyday basis. They help her shake off the fear so she can live her life to the fullest. The photos of Lucie from when she worked as a model make for a stark but powerful contrast with the woman she is now, bald and wearing a wig. It is a long journey, but she eventually takes charge of her health and decides to have an aggressive double mastectomy, the best preventive choice to keep her cancer at bay, followed by a series of reconstructive surgeries to keep her external beauty intact.
Wendy, another of Lucie’s friends, allows us to witness her first chemo treatment. She becomes the film’s next protagonist. The sound of the chemo instruments on the oncology floor is paining. It evokes a sharp image of an unsentimental and troubled woman struggling against her demons to maintain her grace as she is forced to endure the attack that cancer levels against her body, and the chemical invasion that is saving her life. Wendy shares her story with other chemotherapy patients at a support group meeting. Her joie de vivre is contagious. We witness her effort to stay strong and positive, developing her inner wisdom by sharing moments of revelation, joy, growth, excitement, and change, until her mission to win the battle is accomplished. She becomes a different person. She never loses her beauty. She becomes an advocate for the cause, a self-proclaimed inspirational artist, singer and speaker. With her guitar she travels North America and tells the same breast cancer story we learn on screen.
We meet Danuta at the beginning of her journey with cancer, right before she hears and is made aware of available treatments at the Villa-Maria Breast Clinic.
Pamela is a strikingly beautiful woman in her late 30s, from the Seychelles, who learns she has breast cancer after having been misdiagnosed for a number of years. She decides to go through tumorectomy, a surgical removal of the tumor with a small amount of health tissue, followed by other treatments. Cancer changes her life forever. She agrees to reveal her story less than a year after her last chemotherapy treatment.
Kathleen, a 33-year-old preschool teacher, has been a diagnosed with three cancers since the age of 3. When we meet her, she has already developed a bone metastasis of her breast cancer, diagnosed when she was 28. She battles her cancer through traditional medicine, diet, a new lifestyle, and support from her unconditionally loving husband, Tony.
Susan has the longest survival rate of the film’s protagonists. As she goes through her journey with breast cancer, she battles the disease with conventional medicine, combining it with complementary medicines.
Amba has a different approach. She uses mostly alternative methods after having a mastectomy of one breast and is convinced she can cure her cancer without having to resort to chemotherapy or radiation.
They exemplify the tale of the female warrior spirit, brave, unflinching, and yet conscious of the battle ahead that may be their undoing. They make a constant effort to maintain their quality of life. As in “Russian Roulette,” no one knows who is going to make it and who isn’t. Each woman’s description of her journey resounds with anguish and yet, at times, it turns to humor as a self-defense mechanism. Wit becomes an integral part of the film.
The film bears witness to the suffering of these brave women. They agree to bare themselves to show how vital it is to take control of one’s health. They hope to exhort other women fighters, ready to battle the beast if it rears its head. “Life is worth far more than a breast,” as one says with a smile. When I saw their determination to fight cancer, I knew I had to help bring their combat to light.
I decided to record their stories until I understood their pain and the need to speak the truth about it. I knew that the challenge of building an emotional and personal portrait would be difficult, but I knew that de-masking one of the most prevalent women’s cancers in the modern Western world was important. I accompanied them to their operations and treatments.
I was trying to translate the stages, emotions, experiences and treatments the women went through in real time.
GGM: I can only imagine how difficult it was to lose some of your participants during this journey.
Liliana: First was Danuta, who refused to continue her journey with cancer on camera. Danuta ran away immediately after the interviews were over and never wanted to speak to me again. I understood and respected her choice to stop her participation in my film. She went outside the doctor’s office to grab some air, and cried. She stayed in the arms of her boyfriend and was in a state of self-consciousness. I got very attached to her because, like me, she was born in Poland and she speaks my native language.
Other characters like Amba or Kathleen were very faithful and participated with an openness I admired. It was so painful to lose them as friends. Even now it is very hard to talk about them. I never expected that losing them would be the ending of my film.
GGM: Can you share with us some of the emotions that you felt and were there any individual situations that stood out?
Liliana: Every woman in the film needed to tell her story, even if it was hard. After a while, they were a part of a collective picture and I was just behind the camera. Often I was talking to them and they would look at me like I was from another planet, but they trusted me. They allowed me bare their lives on screen and to deeply investigate their emotions. I learned that you just have to help them stay in the moment with their feelings, and be a true witness. You cannot interfere. That’s when I grew!
Since we have not found the cure for breast cancer yet, you are tempted to look at these women for little glimpses of the light, for something which good and positive, to reassure them in their dark periods. You want to see that they have some hope and that this event transformed their lives for the better in some instances.
I needed to create a strong bond with the women who were brave enough to reveal their stories to me. As they opened up to me, I was able to understand their pain and their need to speak out about the disease. Their candid confessions, in front of the camera, were some of their most heartbreaking and liberating experiences. They changed my life forever.
One of my subjects, after a mastectomy and chemotherapy, observed: “I stood in front of the mirror, looking at my reflection and not recognizing myself. There was not one hair left on my body and a heavy bandage covered my mutilated breast. When I finally braved to unwrap it, I realized that it was my first encounter with… my real self.” Having participated in these intimate moments, I was honored. I am also greatly encouraged since I know their experiences will reach the heart of everybody who watches the film, giving them not only an invaluable insight, but also some hope.
You feel a responsibility to deliver a valuable message to our community especially when you deal with fragile human emotions through the worst challenges in life, like a death threatening illness. On the other hand, you have the support of the people and it’s nice to know they’re behind you. I was timid about dealing with this subject matter because I was inexperienced. I had never directed a documentary before and was afraid that cancer would be a hard place to start. You really have to spend two to three years of your life very deeply involved in this reality, getting to the bottom of the experiences and the emotions involved. I did some reading, researching, talking to the experts in the field, and listening to the stories of my subjects on camera. I watched the movies and documentaries, but also had to prepare myself for the emotional journey, to try and imagine what these people are going through, so I could cinematically express it in a truthful, authentic and profound way without any judgment.
Life over cancer!
GGM: Tell us about your production team for this project.
Liliana: It was extremely simple. When I decided to make this movie I looked to my mentors and the people I trusted to give me the best advice. I wanted my crew to be only women, but with the time restriction I had to make the decision to have man cinematographers. I did insist that all of the sound-people be women. My subjects were interviewed with small microphones, attached to their breast less chests, to make them feel more comfortable.
GGM: How did you pull this team together?
I am a new producer, but I have been an actress for over 20 years in Poland, the US and Canada. My experience creating a crew of young, talented and passionate people was my pride and privilege. I relied on a few key professionals, and the rest were young film school graduates who loved working on an independent project like mine. It all worked very well.
GGM: How long did the entire project take?
Liliana: I met Soraya in September 2008. That’s when I started my research; gathering my thoughts on the subject matter and meeting people who would help me clarify the purpose of the documentary. My mentor, Oscar winner Denise Robert, was the most influential in motivating me to bring this project to the screen. Soraya agreed to become my first participant. I started shooting in January 2009. I completed my principal photography in October 2012 and the postproduction in April 2012. It premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival, where it won the Best Documentary price and Public Choice Award.
GGM: Can you share with us your background? How you got into acting and directing?
Liliana: I was born in Poland with a passion for the arts that led me to pursue a Master’s Degree of Fine Arts. I graduated, with honors, from the State Theater Academy in Warsaw. Shortly thereafter I made my debut performance in a Masterpiece Theater production of THE CRUCIBLE as Abigail, winning the “Best Debut Award by an Actress” from the Polish Television Academy. In 1984, I arrived in the US to star alongside Kyra Sedgwick in WAR AND LOVE. I also I obtained a number of film and television credits including roles on THE COSBY SHOW and HIGHLANDER and in feature films including THE ART OF WAR with Wesley Snipes. I have worked with Academy Award winning director Bruce Beresford (Her Alibi), Academy Award nominated director/producer Ridley Scott and Golden Globe award winning producer Tony Scott( Hunger TV Series). All while collaborating with Hollywood’s A-listers including Aidan Quinn, Donald Sutherland and Sir Ben Kingsley.
I finally discovered a passion for directing when I met Academy Award winning film producer Denise Robert, who became my mentor, and inspired by the work of Alains Obomsawin, a proficient documentary filmmaker.
GGM: What would you like for people to learn from this documentary?
Liliana: As a director of “Beauty and the Breast”, I was honored to be a witness to the nine exceptionally courageous women as they were dealing with this horrifying disease. Their stories encourage personal responsibility for one’s health and shows that we cannot always rely on an imperfect medical system. Some of their journeys ended in triumphant. Their life changing experiences strengthened my view of one’s ability to have resilience while facing cancer. I made this film to demystify cancer, to change our perception of those who are fighting, and to answer the question: “How do we find the power within us to stand up to cancer and live with it?”I wanted to make people aware of the choices they have if they have to fight this disease.
I made this film so the audience could connect with the on-screen protagonists and show women in the middle of this struggle some support. It is with their help that we can change the way the world sees cancer. The lesson is to never give up hope. It’s time that these stories were told as a collectively human journey to help us find a cure.
GGM: Based on your research and experience filming this documentary, what is the best piece of advice/ knowledge you can pass along to women about breast cancer?
Liliana: Strength is often found in those who offer support, see your potential, and believe in your dreams. The film “Beauty and the Breast” explores a woman’s power to overcome adversity and the people who support them. This film reflects the spirit of people and will help to create a healthier world.
Many thanks to Liliana for her time and for bringing to the forefront this important issue. For more information on the documentary, please visit there site HERE.