Lea Pool is very frustrated, and the more the internationally acclaimed Canadian filmmaker talks about breast cancer, the more frustrated she gets. Her documentary film, Pink Ribbons, Inc, explores hypocrisy and greed behind the altruistic veneer of corporate breast-cancer fundraising programs. It was inspired by Samantha King’s landmark book of the same name.
“I got more and more angry as I made this film,” Pool says, in French. “We exposed companies that are profiting from a disease to increase their own earnings. I found it all to be revolting.”
Pool shows how, after marketing experts identified breast cancer as a dream cause, some corporations launched fundraising efforts to make themselves look charitable while contributing only a tiny fraction of the proceeds to fighting the disease.
Pool also explores how some of those companies pollute the environment or sell products that contain chemicals that may cause breast cancer. And, she says, the environmental causes of the disease are still largely ignored, with only about five percent of the money that does go to breast-cancer research spent on figuring out how to best prevent it in the first place.
“Getting front-line organizations to disclose information was next to impossible,” Pool says. “We hired two very experienced researchers and a journalist for six months, and it was impossible to track where all the money actually goes. There is no transparency, and there is competition between the organizations. The image of pulling together to fight breast cancer is just that: an image.”
Pool also explores why visible minorities are almost never depicted in breast-cancer fundraising campaign imagery. She is a lesbian and says she is very much aware of studies and reports that suggest higher incidences of breast cancer among bisexual and lesbian women.
The National LGBT Cancer Network in the US reports the increased risks in lesbian and bi women may be because of higher rates of cigarette smoking, alcoholism and obesity. The network also suggests that pregnancy can affect cancer rates: “Lesbians are less likely to have biological children before age 30, which would offer some protection against cancer.”
“It is true there is a lot of cancer in the lesbian community because they don’t need birth-control contraceptives,” says Pool. “That’s why fewer have gynecological exams at a younger age, so when their cancers are discovered they are often advanced. We can’t deny this reality, which is why I have regular mammograms, even though I believe mammograms are not the best tool. But it is better to have them than not to.”
Pink Ribbons, Inc has just signed with a US distributor, so controversy over the doc is expected to spill south over the border. A Variety review after the film premiered at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival reads, “Pink Ribbons, Inc resoundingly pops the shiny pink balloon of the breast-cancer movement.”
“Breast-cancer fundraisers have raised billions of dollars, but what have they accomplished?” asks Pool. “There is still no significant progress. More than 59,000 women still die of breast cancer in North America each year.”
Pool insists her documentary is about hope.
“I respect all those women who march in all those breast-cancer walks,” she says. “They want to change the world, and I applaud them. But we must also be conscious about what’s happening to the money we raise and demand to know where our money is going. The cheerful face of this disease is not the reality of breast cancer.”