TIFF Q&A: Léa Pool
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TIFF Q&A: Léa Pool

Our chat with the director of the gutsy, illuminating Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Filmmaker Léa Pool. Still courtesy Pat Dillon/NFB.

Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Directed by Léa Pool (Canada, Special Presentations)


September 11, 12:30 p.m.; Isabel Bader Theatre (93 Charles Street West)

September 13, 9:15 p.m.; AMC 2 (10 Dundas Street East)

September 18, 12:15 p.m.; Scotiabank Theatre 1 (259 Richmond Street West)

Last year, TIFF’s banner film was Sturla Gunnarsson’s Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie. It was good. In fact, we noted that it probably should have opened the festival instead of (ugh, dare we speak its name?) Score: A Hockey Musical. But Suzuki had nothing on the film that the National Film Board seems to be pushing the hardest this year, Léa Pool’s gutsy, illuminating Pink Ribbons, Inc.

A thorough analysis (well, “takedown” is probably the better word) of the machinations controlling both the culture and industry of breast cancer awareness, Pink Ribbons is an NFB film in the most significant way: intelligent and deeply engaged, socially. Pink Ribbons, Inc. is the kind of documentary that you hold up eagerly anytime someone questions the function of the NFB, so you can wave it around and say, “This! This is what our National Film Board is capable of!”

And without Pool (more accustomed to earning her keep as a director of narrative features), it could have also been an NFB film in the pejorative sense: chocked with heads who set about talking our ears off. But Pool’s skilful direction gives all the talking an emotional arc, one which makes watching Pink Ribbons, Inc. feel like you’re actually watching a movie, instead of just doing some community service.

Torontoist: When did you first come across Samantha King’s book, Pink Ribbons, Inc.?

Léa Pool: Well the National Film Board contacted me about three years ago asking me to do a film about the Pink Ribbon itself. And I’m not sure exactly what they wanted me to do. But they gave me the book, Pink Ribbons, Inc. and also Barbara Ehrenreich’s article, Cancerland. I learned a lot. I was really surprised. And I was interested. The only problem is that they already began research and it was a lot of talking heads. So for a filmmaker it’s always a little difficult to go from that into something that’s a little more cinematic, that can capture an audience.

How did you go about doing this? Is it with the inter-cut montage sequences of all the  products branded with the pink ribbon logo?

Yes, but most of it was in the editing room. I wanted to convey how I felt going through the process. Like at first I saw these people doing these Cancer Walks and you go, “Yeah okay, why not?” but as I sorted through the piles of film, I got so angry. So I wanted it to feel more and more uncomfortable. Even if all these women do many things that are important to them, and I respect them, they are trapped in something that is terrible. And this opposition between something that is so emotional and personal and how big companies hijack it to make profit was the most insidious process. As someone says in the film, “It’s just business as usual.”

Well this is one of the things that’s very admirable about the film. It’s a critique of the breast cancer “culture” or the breast cancer “industry” but it also looks at the operations of capitalism, and of globalization, as a whole.

This was a surprise for me. Because when I began, I though that yes, it’s too much pink in October and I hated buying toilet paper for “the cause.” But I never thought it went so deep and was so cynical.

Is there a worry that the kinds of people in the film, who do the walks and do the runs, will react negatively to it, or worry that what they’re doing is being undermined?

It’s possible. We haven’t shown the film so I don’t know yet. But I’m sure it will get very emotional. Because you do something you think you’re right in doing and you get confronted with something that is not so… nice, and that makes you want to ask more questions. That can always get uncomfortable. But I respect the women. I think this film is about having another conversation about breast cancer and how we can change things. We want conversations. We want people to talk.

You have to think before you pink. And people need to ask questions before they hand over their money. And what are the results and where this money goes. Because we only hear about how much money. We have to be a little more political in the way we are doing things. To be more active. And I know that when you have breast cancer you don’t necessarily want this kind of battle, because it’s a huge toll on your own life. But we have to start having other conversations.

Did you encounter any resistance from people working for, say, the Susan G. Komen foundation, or other organizations which are pillars of the breast cancer industry?

A little bit. They knew from the beginning, approximately, what the subject was. We never hid the fact that it was inspired by Samantha King’s book. But we wanted to have all the points of view. I’m not interested in a film where it’s just activists and just my voice-over saying what I think. It’s more powerful to have all these people who think they are doing good. At Susan G. Komen, they’re sure what they’re doing is best. I’m sure of that. For me the film couldn’t happen without these people. We had to have these people.