Saturday 11 October 2014

Jane Doe (2006)

Director: Jane Fendelman
Star: Jane Fendelman
Jane Doe is rather unlike any movie I've seen before and that plays in its favour. I don't know quite what I expected going in but I guess it was some combination of the words, 'cancer' and 'documentary'. In 2005, Jane Fendelman was diagnosed with grade three breast cancer, its most aggressive form, and that meant a 40% chance of survival. In other words, it was likely that she was going to die. That's hardly the best of news at any time but it also served as a double red underline to the annus horribilis that was her 2004, in which her father had died, she'd suffered a miscarriage and her husband had left her for a friend. At this point, you might expect that the arrival of aggressive cancer and a 60% chance of death might prompt a submission, where Jane would give up, roll over and let death take the bad times away. She emphatically did not do that. She made this film instead. 'I'm a caterpillar and I'm going into a cocoon,' she explains. 'In seven months I'm going to come out with wings... everything I think and feel will be different.'

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.
It's not even a traditional video diary, of the sort that chronicles a journey through treatment. There isn't much treatment, at least in the film, because primarily we're focused on Jane's mind more than her body. There are few points where anything directly leads to anything else, so there's no real progression on the medical side. In fact, we have little idea of time, tracking it mostly through the various stages of hair loss. This is because Jane didn't edit down her 150 hours of footage chronologically, attempting more to catch the progression of her inner thoughts. This ends up highly appropriate because it echoes how epiphanies didn't arrive at once, they were gradual realisations, piecing together bits from here and there to form an idea and the ideas to grow into a mindset. It's quite clear that Jane is rarely completely lucid, the disease hitting her hard and the chemotherapy treatments messing with her head. It means that her narrative is a rambling thing but, like her thoughts, it gradually coalesces into a big picture.

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.
Those moments mostly serve to highlight where the real value is here, which is in Jane talking directly at us through the fourth wall. She's so blissfully open and honest that it's sometimes difficult to take, feeling like we're intruding on her privacy, but it's clearly important for her to let everything out, to unburden her mind as she searches for who she really is. There are points where she looks great and points where she really doesn't. There are points where she's bouncy, surely buoyed by energy gifted by the steroids in her chemo drugs, and points where she's subdued, lost, wiped out. There are points where the reasons to go on are clearly there in the forefront of her mind and points where they're gone, hiding beyond her reach. All these serve as jigsaw pieces that she gradually connects as the film runs on, building a picture of the butterfly which she'll become. What there aren't are points where she's embarrassed. 'I can't remember the last time I was embarrassed,' she says late in the film. It exists because of that as much as cancer.

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.

Important sources:
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).

1 comment:

Jane Fendelman said...

Hal, thank you so much the great and thoughtful review! XXOO!! Jane