I’ve watched enough issue documentaries in my time to be just about deaf to the desperate plea of the latest filmmaker to have uncovered the next great crisis plaguing our society. For any documentarian who’s taken the time to investigate their pet issue, dredge up experts, expose hundreds of feet of film, find distribution, slog through the small festival circuit — all the hardships involved in getting a labor of love out to a hopefully-receptive public — it’s understandable to have a deep investment in the cause. But that kind of commitment can lead to documentarians cutting corners when their arguments aren’t working, which in turn leads to a simple rule of thumb for issue documentaries: the more important the subject is made to sound, the more important it is to keep a wary eye on the filmmaker’s tactics. I know enough to be wary of the urgent call to action in a documentary like Pink Ribbons, Inc.
But this issue doc has a distinguishing trump card: it’s directed by Lea Pool. While undoubtedly a biased documentary, its success is in accepting and moving beyond that bias. Pool is a veteran filmmaker with a 33-year-long career who is still putting out good work in both narrative and documentary films, and she’s developed an intensely personal filmography known for its evocations of feminism and modern isolation. This kind of successful longevity could mean she’s simply seasoned enough to mask the biases of her documentaries as objectivity. But it could also mean that she’s good enough to fully invest herself in those biases and put out honestly partisan films. Pink Ribbons, Inc is seriously, undeniably the latter.
Pool’s target, and the subject of the book she takes as her groundwork, is the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, the organization that popularized the titular ribbon as a symbol of the fight against breast cancer and whose stated mission is to cure it. Of the three dozen or so trenchant, eloquently made points in Pink Ribbons, Inc., probably the most illuminating is the one Pool allows to be made by expert after expert: that the goal of “curing” breast cancer is a dated one. To most oncologists and cancer researchers, at least the ones given time here, “cure” is a loaded term, and an offensive one to many women living with the disease. Most of them argue convincingly that the shift in Komen’s mission should be towards education and prevention — to get women out of harm’s way before they contract a deadly disease that is by its nature protean and incurable.
This is perhaps the most delicately made point in the movie, but it’s wrapped up in a much larger one: that Komen puts out a lot of buzz about finding a cure for breast cancer because its real mission is to make a lot of money off the hype they build around their events — their Races for the Cure and their celebrity photo ops. Pool goes to great lengths to give face time to experts as wide-ranging as social critic Barbara Ehrenreich and Dr. Susan Love, informed activists who have themselves had breast cancer and whose heavy scrutiny of the Komen Foundation’s inextricable link with its sponsor corporations is impossible to ignore. Many companies, it turns out, have found it very lucrative to use Komen’s “race for the cure” brand to make a lot of money. The list of corporations — many of whom produce cancer-causing products — that Komen takes money from is astounding, and one of the more jaw-dropping features of Pink Ribbons, Inc is how many times Pool uncovers and eviscerates the reputation of a company that has sponsored the Komen foundation in order to use the breast cancer fight to sell its products: companies putting out bottled water, baby food, cars, handguns, and gasoline are at the tip of an increasingly ludicrous list.
Pool’s heroes, speaking out in direct opposition to the Komen Foundation, are women who either have the disease or who are experts on it. Heroes, actually, is not the word these women would use: many women, whether breast cancer sufferers or not, take issue with the label in as much as a “hero” traditionally means one who fights, and a fight is something either won or lost. But breast cancer is something you either survive or die from. Survival is not winning, but more importantly dying is not losing.
In the end it would be unfair to say that Pink Ribbons, Inc is a “call to action”. Pool and her subjects would simply like the study of breast cancer survival taken out of the hands of a corporate-backed movement. But the strength of the movie is its ability to lay out fact after cogent fact and leave action up to the conscience of the audience, some of whom might be as-yet-uninformed Komen supporters. I was so taken by the film’s passions and by the calm, reasoned, intelligent people expounding them, that I couldn’t avoid feeling a “call” myself, and that’s a pretty compelling reason to think Pink Ribbons, Inc is damned successful. Aside from a few too-glitzy animations, this film is near perfect in its execution of its goal, a precise and erudite take down of a sham.