Right now Gerry Rogers’ left breast is in a jar in a medical archive in Newfoundland.
“After the mastectomy, I asked where it was because I am a curious person,” says Rogers, an award-winning documentary filmmaker. ” I have spent my whole life getting to the bottom of things.
“My humour and curiosity – that’s who I am and it doesn’t go away when you have cancer. Cancer is something that happens to you, not something you become.”
Rogers’ powerful individuality pervades My Left Breast, her autobiographical film about breast cancer (it screens at the Inside Out festival on Sun, May 20 at 2pm). The piece documents Rogers’ arduous year of treatment, from mastectomy to chemotherapy and radiation, including all the hair loss, nausea, constipation and insomnia along the way.
“I never felt exposed because there was a camera there. There wasn’t a single shot that we didn’t use because it was too personal. What is too personal, too intimate? I don’t know what that means.
“When the bandages were first removed [after the surgery], my partner Peggy exclaimed, ‘Oh, my God, I can see your heart beating.’ I told her ‘That’s because my heart is closer to the surface now.’ That’s what this film is really about – it’s not just about breast cancer. It’s about living with your heart closer to the surface,” says Rogers.
It is this openness that speaks to almost every audience.
After its television premiere on CBC Newsworld, the film’s website (www.myleftbreast.com) was flooded with posts from people who were personally touched by Rogers’ story. It has been a hit at every film fest that has screened it and recently won the Gold Award for best Canadian documentary at Hot Docs here in Toronto.
Despite the video’s intimacy it manages to avoid voyeurism since it is Rogers herself who controls the images. “I was clear right from the beginning,” says Rogers, “that if I didn’t direct it, there was no film.”
What Rogers has captured is not just a frank examination of her illness and treatment, but the circle of friends, family, animals and total strangers who gathered around her and the transformative effect of their love and support.
The concrete symbol of this support is a “potluck healing wig” that Rogers had a professional wig maker create out of strands of hair donated by people from across the country.
The healing wig was born when Rogers knew that she would soon lose her own hair. Word about the project spread accidentally after a computer glitch. “I had been sending updates to about 30 friends. But while I was in the hospital my computer broke. Peggy sent my letters out from her desktop and didn’t know who I has sending to, so she forwarded it to my entire e-mail list, which included everyone I knew – over a hundred people from business associates to granting agencies – and they started forwarding my messages to more people.”
When Rogers posted her request for hair, donations started pouring in. “A woman in her 60s that I had never met sent me a blonde braid with a faded pink ribbon that she had cut off when she was five years old. Another woman who had just lost her best friend to cancer cut off her ponytail and sent it to me.
“People sent their dog and cat’s hair, a feather, 100 children in a school for the deaf each donated a lock, a friend of mine who was going through chemotherapy only had 10 hairs left and she gave me four of them…. People are still sending me their hair even when I tell them that the wig is finished.”
The result of the project is a massive wig that Rogers’ refers to as “a bit wild looking.” She plans to take the head piece on tour as a part of breast awareness month in October. The wig, like the documentary, shows that creativity and human connections can be born out of even the least life affirming experiences.
At the centre of Rogers’ circle of support is Peggy, her partner of nine years. “According to Peggy we’re going to be okay – between the two of us we still have three breasts,” says Rogers.
“[During the treatment] Peggy and I often found ourselves alone waiting in hospital rooms and we would end up dancing and laughing in each other’s arms. I don’t want to sound overly sentimental or romanticize this experience because it was so damn hard, but there was also some transformative potential there – a little bit of grace.”
She refuses, however, to gloss over the moments of hopelessness. “Every drug has a side-effect and another drug for that side-effect,” says Rogers, who admits to being deeply ambivalent about the effectiveness of the treatments. “[At one point] I felt like my body was the Dead Sea – utterly stagnant.”
In the documentary, Rogers struggles to reclaim her changing body with humour and playfulness. In one scene she stands in front of a mirror comparing her hairless head to her baby nephew’s. In another she lies on a snow-covered Newfoundland beach with a seal, mimicking its body language.
“I’ve always had extra pounds so it has been a struggle not to fall into self-loathing,” says Rogers. “I think everyone struggles to feel really, really worthy of love.
“At one point I was suffering so much from the constipation [a side-effect of the drugs] that the clinic told Peggy how to give me an enema. There I was bloated from the steroids, totally bald, wearing nothing but a sweat soaked undershirt writhing in pain. Peggy gave me the enema and put my head in her lap and stroked it and told me how beautiful I was. And you know what? I believed her. That just shoots the body image crap all to hell.”
This kind of candid story is typical of both Rogers and her documentary. “It’s not a complicated film. It’s really very simple – just about people stripped down to their naked basics, both metaphorically and literally.”
LESBIAN AND GAY
FILM AND VIDEO FESTIVAL.
$9 for most screenings.
Thu, May 17-27.
(416) 925-XTRA xt 2229.