Gerry Rogers hadn’t been in Costa Rica long before her bag got stolen.
She was sitting in a small eatery with her friends, talking and laughing, when she looked down and realized the bag was gone, and with it her camera, money, rings and – perhaps worst of all – her signature red lipstick.
While this might have been enough to ruin most people’s vacation, Rogers shrugged it off, her eyes twinkling with good humor.
The Canadian filmmaker’s implacable don’tsweat- the-small-stuff philosophy is hard earned. The elfin Rogers, 52, found out nine years ago that she had breast cancer, and then embarked upon a journey of fear, pain and self-discovery during a year of treatment that changed her life.
“One of the things I realized is that we really have no control over life,” she said. “No matter how much you pay for that ultramega- control hair gel, even then you just have no control.”
Rogers and her partner, Peggy Norman, decided to make a movie about her experience.
She wanted to harness her creativity and experience as a documentary filmmaker as an “act of rebellion” against the cancer.
Rogers came to Costa Rica to show the film, called “My Left Breast” (2000), last week for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
The Canadian Embassy, National Foundation Against Breast Cancer (FUNDESO) and Costa Rican-North American Cultural Center teamed up to provide a week of activities to raise awareness, the highlight of which was the screening of Rogers’ film.
Though she is happy to have reached so many people, Rogers doesn’t necessarily find “My Left Breast” representative of her work as an artist. Unlike in her previous documentaries, Rogers was the subject of the film, and instead of hiring a top cinematographer, she and Norman did the camera work.
“I’ve been making films for a long time, and I used state of the art technology, and in this we didn’t,” she said. “My partner and I used small cameras and that was the only way we could do it to get the intimacy that we had in the film.”
t’s not always easy for Rogers to watch the result.
“It’s humbling to watch the projection at times. Sometimes it’s really painful,” Rogers said.
At the beginning of the film, when the couple was using a basic home camera, the sound quality is poor. Though they switched to a broadcast-quality camera early in the process, the entire work has a homemade quality about it.
In the movie, Rogers’ expressive face shows emotion with the openness of a child as she struggles through her fear of the bodyravaging chemotherapy treatments. As she loses her hair, her expressions become only more powerful. In one scene, Rogers holds her infant nephew in her arms as they spin around slowly in front of the camera. The filmmaker’s bald head and bright eyes mirror the baby’s, and the scene is a respite from more painful moments.
In another scene, Rogers finds a seal basking on the Newfoundland shore in Canada and lies a little behind it, mimicking the animal’s lazy contentment in the snow. The resemblance is uncanny, and it is impressive and endearing how Rogers plays so easily with her baldness, triumphing over the effects of chemotherapy with a childlike wonder and sense of fun. Yet in a sadder scene, she blurts out that she’d rather die than continue her treatments. She moves from joy to profound sadness and back.
Most of all, she is honest.
Rogers said one of the main reasons she made the film was because she couldn’t find a movie that dealt with breast cancer.
“All I could find were films that were very medical or films that were sort of ‘Ra ra ree, I’m going to beat this cancer!’ and I didn’t feel that,” she said. “I had a lot of ambiguity about the treatments. I had a lot of fear. I looked for something that would speak to all these feelings that I had, and I couldn’t find anything.”
The film has won more than 20 awards internationally since it came out in 2000, including a Canadian Gemini Award for best documentary and several gay and lesbian film festival awards.
“I call it the little video that could,” she said. “It’s been all over the world. People pirate it.”
Since the film was made, Rogers has had another mastectomy, and her mother, sister and three aunts have all had mastectomies as well. They call themselves “The Young and the Breastless.”
“I don’t call myself a breast cancer survivor because breast cancer is what happened to me – it’s not who I am,” she said. Rogers forwent reconstructive surgery and does not wear a prosthesis. “They’re my battle scars,” she said.
Rogers said she was scared to look at her chest after the surgery.
“The nurse pulled off the big bandage and left me there exposed, and Peggy looked down and said, ‘My God, Gerry, I can see your heart beating,’” Rogers said. “I said, ‘Well, I guess that’s because my heart’s closer to the surface now.’ And I think that’s one way things have changed a bit for me.”