Star: Jane Fendelman
And above all, that's what this film is: a document of one person's surprising reaction to imminent death, in which she struggles through the obvious knowledge that cancer is the big, bad bogeyman who scares the crap out of a lot of people to the realisation that it's a heck of a lot more than that. Perhaps the most quotable film I've ever watched, the most important line comes when Jane suggests that, 'Maybe cancer is such a gift because it strips away everything you thought you were.' It's an unorthodox approach but a telling one, because Jane is one of the most alive people I know. I didn't know her in 2005, when she went through this, or in 2006, when she released this video diary of that time, but I know her now and it would be difficult to think of anyone with more drive. The reasons why are the building blocks of this film, as we don't really watch her struggle with cancer, instead we watch her struggle with what it means: to her, to her life and to the world around her. And she ends up realising that she's a butterfly.
If that doesn't make a lot of sense, it's because Jane Doe is less of a story and more of an immersion into the mind of someone reevaluating who she is, a sort of braindump that I might describe as chemo addled if only it didn't contain so much fundamental insight. In fact it's much easier to explain what the film isn't than what it is. It isn't a medical journey, for a start, because cancer isn't the focus here, it's far more of a MacGuffin, given that everything in this film revolves around it but it doesn't do anything (from our point of view) except serve as a catalyst for Jane's change. We do meet a doctor but he provides little medical detail and Jane isn't able to add much either; attempting to explain why steroids are being added to her chemotherapy cocktail, she only manages, 'It protects you or does something.' This is not going to help anyone learn what cancer is or what it does to the human body. The closest it gets is to hammer home the point that chemotherapy makes your hair drop out, hardly news at eleven.
The rambling is only one reason why it's a difficult film to watch. There are many moments where we drift away, but never for the usual reasons. I often drift away from the screen while watching movies but, most of the time, it's because they're boring and I eventually realise that I'm not watching any more and return to figure out what I missed and why I should care. Here, it's never boredom that made me drift. There are moments that are uncomfortable, emotional, private, repetitive, rambling, each of which shifted my eyes away but never fully and never for more than just moments. There's too much here that's magnetic, real, true, meaningful, wise. If some moments made me look away, others refused to let me blink. Unlike most documentaries, where what we're shown builds to a point, the points here leap out of nowhere when we least expect them. One moment, Jane is rambling again, unable to form a coherent sentence, and then she's blistering out entire paragraphs of directly quotable material.
And those scenes, if such a word can be applied to a movie where almost all we see is Jane's face talking into a video camera, are the best ones, because they're immense moments. They emphasise that behind the woman struggling with pain and disease, there's a mind that's connecting dots to realise vast truths and finding a way to give them a voice through the cocktail of drugs in her system. There's a much more traditional documentary moment later in the film, where Jane takes off a scary pink wig to show her mum her bald head for the first time and she leans over and kisses it. It's an irresistible moment, the sort that trailers were designed to highlight, but it's out of place here because it's part of a sequence that involves other people. It's a moment for the video diary that this isn't rather than the video diary that this is. Every time the camera widens its scope to introduce Jane's mother or sister, doctor or hairdresser, it leaves the movie where Jane tells us secret truths and becomes a lesser, more traditional documentary.
It's inevitably a tough picture, because this isn't light hearted subject matter and because of the lack of conventional progression. What's hilarious is how well it plays technically. I may know Jane because she's a strong fixture, a force of nature even, in the local film scene, but she wasn't in 2005 because that side of her was one of many that found their way out after her metamorphosis. She shot this on a home video camera, mostly through simply sitting in front of it but occasionally by hauling it out with her too. It's not difficult to notice that she was the entire crew for most of the film, with the addition of a cameraman only when she's really out wandering. Yet, amazingly, we can hear everything she says, with less background noise than half the entries to local film challenges this year. We can see everything we need to, however sucky the camerawork and the lighting. Jane may not have much of a grasp of what day it is throughout, but she still provides better sound than many people with actual sound equipment. That's hilarious.
It's also ironic because it's much less important here than it would be in most films. It doesn't matter how bad the lighting is, because all we need to do is to see Jane as she pours out her thoughts and lets us in on the moments that matter to her as she goes through this journey. Sometimes those are as apparently meaningless as singing along to music, a hairdresser praying for her or her dog licking her face, but they clearly mean as much to her as more serious moments like the discovery that the focus on lumps in her left breast hid the fact that there's a lump in her right one too. The film is that personal and ultimately it's precisely why it succeeds. We begin the film knowing nothing but 'cancer' but we come out of it knowing Jane, because people are bigger than disease, especially when they're as strong and open to reinvention as she is. I've reviewed her in short films (and a play) portraying a variety of roles, but all of them came after the most important role she's ever had to play: herself.
She also provides her best lines, enough that they could easily be compiled into a short volume of truth. I'll settle for a paragraph, and skip over trite (if true) ones like, 'I'm happy that I'm alive' and the first line in the film, 'This is the story of the healing of a broken heart.' The substantial lines come later. 'I feel like I can do anything now,' she suggests in the depths of treatment. 'Anybody can do anything and it's really easy.' You just have to choose to do it. She tears up less facing death than losing her hair, but it's really all about change: 'I keep on being scared to go to sleep because I don't know who I'll be when I wake up.' Eventually she embraces being bald, because each step in the process makes it more real. 'When it's not real, it's like fighting a ghost,' she says. 'If I'm going to have cancer, I want to have the full experience.' These aren't the lines of Lifetime movies of the week, they're the lines of someone going into her cocoon, being addled by chemo drugs, finding her own personal truth and coming out a butterfly.
Niki D'Andrea - Jane Doe: A Phoenix Woman's Battle with Breast Cancer Becomes an International Documentary Success at the Phoenix New Times Blogs (2008).