Screened as part of NZIFF 2001
Gaylene Preston calls her new documentary ‘an upfront exploration of the emotional discoveries of women with breast cancer’. Ever alert to the potential of a joke to encapsulate the surprising or inconvenient truth, Preston’s effrontery in calling her film Titless Wonders goes hand-in-glove with the painful personal nature of the task she has set herself.
She’s seen women in her family die from breast cancer and others survive, and she has spent the last six years watching her friend Shirley Grace overtaken by the disease. Her film is about coping with the utterly destabilising nature of life-threatening illness, and she prompts a range of women to tell her just how they have managed – and not managed.
Grace’s daughter Aimee reads from her mother’s diary, providing the film’s one account of the alternative medicine route. Irihapeti Ramsden talks of burying a breast in the garden and throwing a party. One woman was so relieved not to be diagnosed with lung cancer that she considered she’d got off lightly. The impact on husbands and partners is measured – and the rural isolation of Shirley Grace is contrasted with the community and activism of the Wellington women.
In the case of dancer Jan Bolwell, trauma and resolution are vividly enacted in her dance piece Off My Chest, which is woven through the film. Other survival measures are much more prosaic, but all move towards a measure of post-diagnosis identity expressed at its most dramatically assured by Jan Bolwell in the photograph that appears on this page.
Listening to their stories it’s impossible not to be struck by how vitally necessary such discourse is for the ill – and how it is resisted like contagion by the well, and by the wannabe well. Shirley Grace died a few days into the new millennium, and this film, dedicated to her memory, gives her the support group she never had and the conversations that might have enriched her suffering. — BG