The new incendiary documentary PINK RIBBONS, INC. puts itself out there as a vital exposé of the ubiquitous "breast cancer culture" that has emerged in the past decade or so. In the name of dealing with a horrific, disfiguring and all too often terminal disease that continues to elude us. It succeeds on that level, frankly detailing information that will likely stir unease with viewers and anger among a few of the film's on-screen participants. Publicly picking essential nits with a massive crusade, participated in by millions of well-intentioned individuals is not an enviable task by any stretch, but PINK RIBBONS does it well. But it goes beyond that, actually getting at issues of the ways we as contemporary people strive to control the uncontrollable, and feel the need to dress a persistent horror with hope.
We're a precarious lot. We don't like to think about it, but by our own typical logic and observations, human beings are a shockingly uneasy Jenga construct of diverse elements, both physical and mental. Everything must "click", working together just right
if there is to be stability of any kind (internally, externally, and beyond). If, for example, one's personality falls out of whack, it can (and will) affect the greater well being of the body. Productivity will cease in the face of the pain (be it real, imagined, or theoretical or other). Therefore, the mere fact that so many of us can and do function effectively in polite human society is something of a wonder. That scored more people are not more readily devoured by entropy and crippling degeneration is nothing short of amazing. More often than we can know, we are held up and carried - the rampant imperfections are otherwise simply too much. And, like humans themselves, the societies we've constructed reflect the same afflictions, the same precarious nature. For the most part, we mean well, but the chemistry is too complex, revealing sometimes terminal flaws. It gets ugly.
I bore witness to my first Susan G. Komen Foundation Race for the Cure in the summer of 2006, when the event took over and devoured entire city blocks in my town. After the initial astonishment at the sheer number of people that were there (a good thing, in and of itself), my fascination turned to the overall atmosphere - a jarringly superficial one, over-dressed in bright pink (as far as the eye could see) and bearing the face of superficial and utterly forced upbeat cheer. This massive event, drenched in corporate logos and warmed-over feel-good ambiance was supposed to be all about working toward a cure for breast cancer. But to an outsider such as myself, it looked more like an estrogen soaked Marti Gras.
I'm a little relieved to discover that I was not alone in my unease. In the documentary PINK RIBBONS, INC., filmmaker Léa Pool uses this observed dichotomy (putting a unintimidating pretty face on the breast cancer reality), beginning at this place of observation, and then asking "why?" Along the way, we hear from individuals on both sides of what has become the corporately driven breast cancer subculture. All are well meaning in their individual intent (no one doesn't want to see the scourge of breast cancer wiped out - this not a conspiracy movie!), but thanks to the levelheaded voices of several sociologists and experts, we come to see that this wildly perplexing of diseases has become a pet cause that many a corporation can safely hitch their wagon to. (And, as one interviewee points out, it let's us say "breast" a lot.)
Today, the pink ribbon iconography is ubiquitous, appearing on everything from yogurt containers to fried chicken buckets. Even automobile manufacturers have gotten into the act, with occasional gaudy pink cars and whatnot, designed to increase awareness and maybe even raise money. In one sequence, we witness a series of famous monuments and skyscrapers lit up in breast cancer pink. But what does all this "awareness" really amount to? And where does all this money that is raised actually go? Pool's answers may not shock you, but when she details how the funded research is spread out, less than organized, chronically redundant and often overlapping, it's a sobering confirmation that simply throwing money at a problem is not enough.
All of that is well covered (sometimes verbatim) in PINK RIBBONS, INC., a well put-together documentary that is never dull. Pool manages to arrange the information in a digestible fashion that evokes emotional and intellectual response. At times the over-compensating use of heavy dirge-like music colors her b-roll footage of pink-adorned marchers tips things too far in terms of negative communication - these are not Romero's zombies, after all. But that's a minor quibble in an otherwise solid documentary that is well worth anyone's time and attention. We may be imperfect, and lack any fundamental control over our universe (no matter how much we may tell ourselves otherwise or choose not to think about that), but projects like this go a long way in helping us grapple with it in manageable portions - eye-opening, appealing to the intellect, and a little challenging - all healthy, solid attributes of filmmaking, whatever the topic.
- Jim Tudor
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