Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi "Rachel's Daughters"

By Devin D. O'Leary

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  Allie Light and Irving Saraf's new documentary Rachel's Daughters takes its name from author Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book Silent Spring warned our naive nation about the dangers of DDT exposure. Unknown to many people at the time, Rachel Carson was waging a personal fight against breast cancer as she wrote her controversial tome. Rachel's Daughters follows a group of modern women, all of whom are battling or have conquered breast cancer. These women are, in many ways, the spiritual heirs of Carson's wide-eyed legacy.

What could have been a depressing look at an unconquerable foe or a redundant plea for more vigilant medical treatment is instead given an intriguing and effective structure by filmmakers Light and Saraf. No strangers to the documentary game, Light and Saraf won a national Emmy for their work on Dialogues With Madwomen and captured the 1991 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for their film In the Shadow of the Stars. Instead of merely interviewing women with breast cancer, the filmmakers gathered together a diverse group of seven cancer-afflicted and cancer-surviving females and gave them an important task. Their job was to travel the country, visiting research centers and contamination sites, and to interview prominent specialists in the field of cancer research. What emerges is a compelling detective story. Right off the bat, these seven interviewers/detectives throw off the tired chains of self-pity and victimization by asking the most important question of all--not "Why me?" but "Why?"

The subtitle of Rachel's Daughters is Searching for the Causes of Breast Cancer. Rachel Carson, of course, pointed out the dangers (cancer being the most obvious) inherent in the overuse of DDT. What this documentary uncovers, however, is a unending list of causes, catalysts and roadblocks to treatment. Once considered the sole result of genetics, researchers are just now starting to find whole new roots for this dreaded disease. Since cancer rates have tripled in the last 50 years, it is clear that genetics are no longer the lone bugaboo. Radiation, environmental pollution, tainted water, pesticides, diet: Even these are merely the tip of the iceberg. Our on-screen interviewers talk to researchers who link cancer to birth control pills to electromagnetic waves and to unrestrained nuclear testing in the 1950s. In this whodunit, the list of suspects is nearly unending. And if indeed Rachel's Daughters can be viewed as a detective story, then it is one of those frustrating Agatha Christie novels in which it turns out that, in the end, everyone did it.

What is most fascinating about Rachel's Daughters is the character that emerges from it. It is an emotionally effecting story--but it is one that possesses both sadness and strength. Initially, our seven amateur investigators are scared. These average, woman-next-door types are all reverently cowed by their powerful foe and equally intimidated by the task of talking to so many learned scientists, activists and researchers. Their sole strength comes from their unity--though a mere seven in number (the ranks of which will be tragically thinned during filming), these survivors have each other to lean on. At first, their interviews are simple and tentative. The women read off their notebook-bound questions with a nervous air. As the film progresses, however, something rather amazing happens. The more questions they ask, the more questions emerge. True answers are hard to come by. Not long into their cross-country investigation, our cancer clubbers begin to find their voice--and it is one of frustration. One African American interviewer begins to grill her subjects as to why the cancer rate is lower among black women, and yet the mortality rate is paradoxically higher. Another interviewer illicits some harsh words from a Pojoaque Pueblo woman convinced that the nearby mine is responsible for her cancer. Several interviewers even manage to berate some well known doctors for perpetuating the myth that cancer is confined to women over 50.

In the end, of course, there are no pat solutions, no happy results. If anything, Rachel's Daughters casts its net so wide that nothing gets captured. Everything about modern society, it seems, is to blame. Such a paranoid conclusion could have been quite depressing. And yet, by guiding their subjects instead of simply recording them, the filmmakers have come to an interesting end. It is the passion, the activism, the unflagging hope of these cancer victims that shines through. Their renewed vigor and purposeful gaze targeted on a clear enemy makes them less victims and more hard-boiled heroes.


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