Interview with In the Family Filmmaker Joanna Rudnick
By Aziza Ngozi Walker and Matt Lauterbach, Spring ‘08 Interns
Filmmaker Joanna Rudnick has had a busy year. In addition to producing the documentary-in-progress PRISONER OF HER PAST and serving as Kartemquin Film's Director of Development, she recently completed her directorial debut with IN THE FAMILY, a documentary five years in the making, in which she is also a primary subject.
IN THE FAMILY tells Joanna’s story of testing positive for the breast cancer gene, BRCA 1, at the age of 27. With the knowledge that she has up to an 85% lifetime risk of getting breast cancer and up to a 60% chance of getting ovarian cancer, Joanna journeys to meet a number of women in similar situations. These women have a lot to teach her about the agonizing decisions she must make, and how these decisions may change the course of her life.
If you could sum up the film in one word, which word would you use?
That is such a tough question…“Powerful.” We seem to hear that quite a bit from people’s reactions to the film, so I would say powerful.
You have a background in science journalism. How did that help you in making this film?
Well, I’m very fortunate that when I went to graduate school I took molecular biology, so I actually understood genetics going into this. Also, the subject fascinated me; having that passion for the subject matter really helps you breathe a lot of life into the film. I had to work at actually leaving out a lot of the “science.” I thought that it was much more important that people out there really understood the emotional and personal consequences and saw the wide scope of genetic testing rather than understood exactly how inheritance and other scientific principles work. Making a film is different than writing an article; I didn’t think everyone needed all the facts. Those facts will be available on the website and we’ll certainly get them out there- but the film is not full of facts, it’s more full of experiences.
Many people do not know the development of how you actually ended up being the main subject of the film. How did you decide that you were going to finally put yourself in front of the camera instead of being behind it?
I would say I was a reluctant subject. When I first set out to make IN THE FAMILY, I wanted to make a film about other women who were in this situation, who had tested positive for this gene and were now facing these excruciating decisions about their lives. What I figured out very early on was that in order to be honest to the BRCA story and to garner so much openness and trust from my subjects, I had to be willing to reveal myself. The team of Gordon (Quinn) as my executive producer and Leslie (Simmer) as my editor really won my trust and helped me be comfortable with revealing more and more of myself as the filming process went on.
Can you talk about how you got the other women to be on camera talking about something that was very personal and a very serious topic?
During the filmmaking process we became very close with the community of women who have this mutation. The community took on the cause of the film, and through Sue Friedman who runs the organization FORCE, Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered, and their online website, I was able to reach out to find other women with stories different than my own. I was really surprised at how open people were to share their story. Women were willing to show me their breast reconstructions and husbands were willing to talk about their wives going through cancer or having their breasts removed prophylactically. People wanted so badly to support other women and families, wanted to say that you can survive and that there are things you can do. In sharing their own stories, they also really reached out to help me with the decisions that I faced. So there was a lot of genuine care and passion that went into that process.
I also distinctly remember the section with the two cousins, the only two males represented in the film that are BRCA 1 carriers. They said some stuff that seemed difficult for you to hear, about relationships and prophylactic breast removal…
You know, I actually appreciated their comments, they're really wonderful young men. Tragically, one of them died in a motorcycle accident, which was a great loss. But I thought they were so brave to be interviewed on the subject and they were wearing these pink and blue wristbands and pins (to signify breast and ovarian cancer awareness) and telling everyone in the bar about it. Hearing two guys who have the gene talk about it was a very interesting insight. They're jokers, so they bring a little bit of that to the conversation, but they are both incredibly sensitive. They have mothers who had been through it and were also supportive of their mothers’ decisions. It’s great that they were so honest. It’s a difficult issue for women and men in romantic relationships to talk about.
I think that they were pointing out a reality that is hard for women with the mutation. However you say it, it is difficult to think about meeting a new partner after having your breasts removed prophylactically. You may have a beautiful reconstruction and obviously you know your partner is going to love you anyway, but there is part of you that will always ask that question, “Will they accept me?” I think that’s what you’re seeing on my face in that scene. That nagging question is present throughout the film.
Would you talk more about your personal growth during this film and to what extent has making this film continued to put you in arenas where you’ve been exposed to different things?
On a personal growth note, people always ask, “Was the film cathartic?” And in some sense yes, it was cathartic to be immersed in this issue, facing it and doing something about it. Now that I’m not in the editing room everyday, I am focused a little bit more on my personal decisions and what I’m going to do. I haven’t taken any surgical steps yet, but I have learned so much and made so many amazing connections that I feel empowered about what my options are.
Are you following up with FORCE or any other organizations nationally or internationally?
IN THE FAMILY has an ambitious outreach campaign with incredible organizational partners who see an opportunity to use this film to raise awareness. We have a very long and exciting road ahead of us, getting together with our partners and figuring out the important questions, such as, how do we design a curricula for medical schools and for genetic counselors? How do we work with primary care physicians to educate them? How do we reach out to the high-risk community? How do we connect with minority women who may not be getting tested or the not have the information? How do we reach out to populations that are disproportionately affected by the mutation? We have a lot to chew on in the next year. This is one of the reasons why we made this film; we are totally dedicated to making sure that it has a rich life beyond broadcast and that people who can benefit from it see it and can have a copy. That’s the big answer.
How do you feel now seeing the final project now, thinking about what you had in mind in the beginning?
I am very happy with the way the film turned out. There are always those little things as the director that you want to change and you still can't let go of, but I really am amazed at how deeply we were able to go into the subject and how much trust people gave to us. I feel like the most rewarding thing to me is when some of the characters who have seen the film say, "You've really captured me. That's really my story and that's really how I am." Nothing could be a greater reward than to hear that.
I’m also becoming more comfortable with the amount of myself that is revealed in the film. Some things were very painful and difficult for me to watch, but now I've sort of been able to separate from that character up there on screen. I'm happy that intimate material is in the final film…and hopefully it speaks to other women who are in a similar situation. I see some great friends up there too; I really made some wonderful friends in the process of making the film.
IN THE FAMILY will broadcast nationally on October 7, 2008 on PBS on POV. It will have its festival premiere in June at the Silverdocs Documentary Festival.
Later this month IN THE FAMILY will participate in the Silverstein lecture series through the center for Genetic Medicine at Northwestern University, which will include screenings and panel discussions at the Thorne Auditorium in Chicago on May 19th, and on May 21st at Ryan Auditorium in Evanston, IL.
Visit the film website for a list a complete list of nationwide festival and outreach screenings.
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