Director Léa Pool digs into the dark side of breast-cancer fundraising in Pink Ribbons, Inc.
To make her subversive new documentary, Montreal director Léa Pool had to track down dozens and dozens of pink-ribbon products—but even amid the masses of teddy bears, lipsticks, yogurt, cars, and, yes, toilet paper, there were two items that stood out for sheer idiocy. The first, criticized at length in the NFB film for “pinkwashing” fried food, was KFC’s 2010 pink Buckets for the Cure. But she found something even worse.
“There was a pink gun,” Pool tells the Georgia Straight over the phone from her home in Montreal. “It was made by an American woman who loved guns and wanted to do more for breast cancer.
“It shows you how everything slips into something so dangerous. We can always say in Canada that it’s a little bit better, but it’s so close and it’s coming everywhere, and we have to stop it.”
Pink Ribbons, Inc., based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Samantha King, goes far beyond just the corporatization of the perky symbol. Pool travelled to fundraising walks and runs around North America and spoke to cancer doctors, activists, and patients. She raises troubling questions about how the millions of dollars are spent. She also points out how the cheery feel of the pretty-pink-ribbon movement—although it may work well building brands—glosses over what remains an ugly, confounding disease. As it’s pointed out in the film, in 1940, one in 22 women stood to get breast cancer; that number today sits at one in eight. And despite the hundreds of millions of dollars being raised, no one knows why.
As you might imagine, taking on pink-ribbon campaigns—a project some might liken to ripping into Amnesty International or Mother Teresa—was not a project that Pool took lightly. As anyone who’s participated in breast-cancer walks or runs knows, they can be hugely inspiring, emotionally moving, and can foster a rock-solid sense of sisterhood. When Pool was approached by producer Ravida Din to direct a film based on the book’s research, she was only peripherally aware of the pink-ribbon campaigns, but she soon realized the explosive potential for a documentary.
“When I read the articles she gave me, and especially Samantha King’s book, I saw that it was a huge subject. Behind this little piece of pink tissue were mysteries, lies, and secrets,” she says. But she admits: “I was a little bit scared because it was such a sensitive subject. I had some friends who had breast cancer, and a few of them died. So I knew there is a solidarity in this movement and all their stories are so moving and powerful. The film is more about how big corporations have exploited this cause.”
Adds Pool, a veteran Swiss-Canadian director who has helmed features like Set Me Free and documentaries like Gabrielle Roy: “Having the NFB and Ravida behind me helped me, too. I knew I had the opportunity to say what I wanted to say, and they knew that I wasn’t a black-and-white person—that I would find a way to say what these women are doing and how it was hijacked.”
Pool said the movie is structured largely on her own journey as she put together footage and did research. It starts on the surface, amid the flamingo-hued fanfare of giant runs and walks, then digs deeper into the issue. Around every turn, she found companies that produce suspected carcinogens—car makers, chemical giants, cosmetics manufacturers, hormone-laced dairy producers—co-opting the pink ribbon. And she discovered only a tiny amount of money raised was going toward prevention.
“As I slowly started going into the subject, I started seeing how cynical it could be and how many lies could be behind that. And I kept going back to [shoot] these walks and began asking, ‘For what? Who is leading? There is no coordination.’ ”
Returning to film the women in pink cowboy hats, tutus, and boas taking part in the charity runs from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco to Toronto, Pool began to see the events in a much more critical light, despite the good intentions. “They’re like a mix of gay pride and Halloween—and they’re not talking about women who died,” Pool says. She says if events do acknowledge the people lost to the disease, it’s often with a single minute of silence—or less. “There was one in San Francisco, and it was not one minute, it was 18 seconds. I took my watch. They can’t be in silence; they need all this music and cheering.”
Crucial to the film is the almost unbelievable access Pool got to the big names behind the charity events, from bigwigs at Avon to Nancy Brinker of the giant Susan G. Komen for the Cure (which has raised $1.2 billion toward the cause). Pool says they wanted to give their side in the film as much as she wanted to have them represented.
“They agreed, and they knew it was coming from the book,” she explains. “They are very, very powerful, so they are not so afraid.”
Another big coup came when Pool and her team were able to track down Charlotte Haley, the elderly woman who in 1992 had hand-sewn some of the first ribbons for breast cancer. Even the birth of the pink ribbon, it turns out, was tainted with corporate appropriation. The film tells the story of how Haley’s peach-hued versions were pinned to notes calling for action on how little the National Cancer Institute was spending on breast cancer. Self magazine, working with Estée Lauder, approached her about using the symbol, and Haley turned them down because they were too commercial. So the publication and cosmetics giants just changed the colour.
“What you can’t see in the film is that she was still afraid that Estée Lauder could come after her with a lawsuit,” Pool recounts.
Pool has accumulated some distressing material in her film. But in the end, she says she doesn’t so much want to rip up the pink ribbon with her politically charged film as encourage women to take it back.
“What I say is we can be more responsible—it doesn’t mean we have to stop everything. It’s just you don’t have to put pink ribbons over your eyes,” she says thoughtfully. “This is just the start of a dialogue. Like [former Breast Cancer Action head] Barbara Brenner says in the film, just ‘think before you pink.’ We don’t always need to be happy and cheerful to have hope—perhaps there’s more hope in being activist. To me, there’s more hope there than to be pink.”
Pink Ribbons, Inc. runs at the Denman Cinemas from Friday, February 3, to February 9 and at DOXA Documentary Film Festival’s Motion Pictures Film Series on February 10 at Richmond City Hall’s council chambers.
Watch the trailer for Pink Ribbons Inc.