Few threats are as amorphous and frightening as breast cancer. It is nature's violent misogyny, sex and death bound up far too tightly. Small wonder, I suppose, that Avon or Revlon or Susan G. Komen fundraisers feel the need to pink these fears over with nearly relentless good cheer—with hopeful messaging, party whoops, feel-good merchandising and a frenzy of sincerely well-meaning self-congratulation.
Pink Ribbons, Inc., director Léa Pool's documentary about the fundraising industry surrounding breast cancer research, devotes a lot of time to this aesthetic disconnect. More than once, Pool cross-cuts excited cancer walkers in pink boas with a group of decidedly less cheery terminal cancer patients. The mood shift is indeed jarring; Pool's point seems to be that we have lost track of the reality of the disease. In practice, it serves to make the largely middle-American masses who show up and donate money to such events seem foolish in their proud sentimentalism. Pool is careful to avoid any hint of mockery, though she is not always entirely successful. Her real target is the corporations who use cancer as a public relations tool, and the corporate-beholden foundations who somewhat self-servingly put vast amounts of money into "awareness" while placing precious little into cancer prevention research. The reason for this is simple, according to the activists interviewed in the film: Cancer-prevention research usually digs into environmental causes. This makes it especially inconvenient for large corporate partners such as Avon, Yoplait and Estée Lauder, who all make products linked to increased risk of breast cancer.
The idea, then, is that the high-sheen cancer-funding events exist only to perpetuate themselves and pad their sponsors' public image, however ardent the commitment of those who attend them. The film makes a powerful case, if also a somewhat diffuse one. It would probably serve its cause much better if Pool had tracked down the actual donation and spending numbers, rather than traffic in implication and the same sort of down-one's-nose pooh-poohing affected by foodies in a McDonald's.
Such implication is nonetheless effective. By the film's end, the masses in pink shirts have taken on an almost insidious or funereal quality, as if a frilly-ribboned walk of tears. "I might be alone in this interpretation," says one breast cancer activist, "but when I see a pink ribbon, I see evil." It's sort of a horror film in PR smiles, flower-painted cars and pink Niagara.
SEE IT: Pink Ribbons, Inc. opens Friday at Cinema 21.