Cutting Out the Myth: A Glimpse at Bernadette Wegenstein’s Documentary on Breast Cancer

Sebastiano del Piombo's painting of the murder of Saint Agatha.

By Kenzie Lane
At the end of Bernadette Wegenstein’s documentary, “The Good Breast,” we see below us the haunting image of a woman lying on an operating table before her mastectomy, her arms outspread. This image, both biblical and medical in its imagery, perhaps captures the very essence of the documentary, whose filmmaker dares not shy away from controversy around this surgical procedure, but rather embraces it with feminist, religious, and cultural influences.

“The Good Breast” focuses on the breast cancer journey of four women and the positions of two doctors who shatter certain myths about breast cancer and discuss its social implications. Without advocating for any one of its subject points of view in particular, it follows these women through consultations over mammograms, mastectomies, breast reconstruction, and death.

Given that according to the National Cancer Institute 12 percent of women likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lifetimes, the film is relevant on many levels. But perhaps its most important contribution to the national dialogue is the way it explores society’s fearfulness and commercialization of breast cancer, the rise in mastectomies, and the overall strange fetishism American culture has with the breast.

I begin at the end of the film because the documentary itself is a journey. The viewer travels with the four women and their doctors. They go from intense family discussions about the outcomes of the illness to the operation table itself, where they watch in gruesome detail the total removal of the breast. They find themselves in the tattoo parlor where women meet with a specialist who completes the reconstruction of their new breasts with an areola and nipple tattoo. They travel to Catania, Italy where the two doctors focused on in the film, Dr. Lauren Schnaper and Dr. Sheri Slezak, observe a parade commemorating St. Agatha, the appointed patron saint of breast cancer. They are there for the aftermath of a death.

This journey, of course, would not have happened without Wegenstein. In many ways, the film is a reflection of her character. Wegenstein, a research professor within the German and Romance Languages and Literatures department and the director of Advanced Media Studies at Johns Hopkins University, keeps very, very busy. In addition to post-production on “The Good Breast,” which she has been working on for the past two years, she is teaching two courses and making another film focused on St. Agatha. On top of that, she’s helping a class in the archaeology department create a short film about the renovation of an ancient Greek kiln. It’s no wonder then that the interviews I conducted with her took place over two weeks, each one squeezed into a timeslot of thirty minutes or less.

When I first met with Wegenstein, I had about twenty minutes to speak with her about “The Good Breast” before an informal screening. Her office is a homey, lived-in space. The walls are covered: in books, in colorful post-it notes that compose the storyboard for the film, abstract paintings, fliers advertising student film workshops and filmmaker residencies, shelves that hold stones, magazines, photographs of her family. Upon her desk rests a golden statuette of St. Agatha, one of the more prevalent and symbolic figures in “The Good Breast.”

Wegenstein has a commanding presence and confidence of her work that originates from a place both personal and academic. Her views in her documentary— and of the world in general— stem from a multicultural background and an appreciation for hearing the stories of others instilled in her by her mother. She describes herself as having been a “hybrid child” of an Austrian mother and a Swiss-Italian father, who grew up traveling between Austria, Switzerland, and Italy. Before she went to school, she was already fluent in Swiss-German, German, and Italian. As a child, she often saw visitors coming in and out of her living room, what her mother referred to as “the salon.” These visitors could be anyone from theologians to rabbis to drug addicts to illegal immigrants. In one instance, a Russian couple— “exiled Jews”— who had been stranded at the airport were brought in by her mother who listened to their stories and had her father, a highly influential and wealthy man, call up the chancellor of the Austrian Republic who lived next door to have their visas fixed up. It’s the “the contradiction and contrast and vibrancy and liveliness of bringing points of view together and finding the communality” that has shaped her worldview, she explains.

“Living in the United States I felt that there was a more and more pronounced attention to the fear of breast cancer, and I wondered where that came from.”

Without a doubt, there are many points of view to weave together around the topic of breast cancer. In the last decade, research has given women conflicting information about the value of various diagnostic tools used to predict breast cancer – and the advice given to women about how to prevent breast cancer is just as fraught. A 2014 study put out by the Journal of National Cancer Institute has suggested that most women who have cancer do not receive any benefit from having the second breast removed. Still other studies tout the severe risk associated with breast cancer genes, suggesting that for women in that extreme category who do have the gene, voluntary double mastectomies may be a valid way to prevent the spread of the disease.

“The Good Breast” seeks to explore the space between that conflicting clinical information from a distinctly feminist perspective. The title of the film was derived from the works of Melanie Klein, a psychoanalyst who was a student of Sigmund Freud. While Freud believed that the hierarchy of the world or the seat of the ego is based on the presence or absence of the phallus, Klein believed that the ego is formed through the female breast, which is the first object that a child experiences either directly or as a substitute (like a bottle). “The child learns early on that one breast is full of milk and life, but as much pleasure as it gets from it, soon it realizes by sucking that there is no more milk left so it goes to the other breast,” explained Wegenstein. “And when that other one is bad or empty then the other becomes the good breast. There’s this built in sense of good and bad through this experience of being a baby and of suckling.”

In the film, Wegenstien uses her multicultural perspective on breast cancer, to take a critical stance on the way in which breast cancer is processed by American culture. One of the reasons why Wegenstein?? began working on the film is because she was intrigued by the differences between American and European perspectives on illness, life, and death. She said, “Living in the United States I felt that there was a more and more pronounced attention to the fear of breast cancer, and I wondered where that came from.” The film briefly explores the commercialization of breast cancer in America through the Pink Ribbon Campaign, which sets aside the month of October to focus on raising awareness about breast cancer through the incorporation of a pink ribbon in highly publicized events. like NFL games where football players sport the pink ribbon and scantily clad cheerleaders hoist pink pompoms into the air. Though, in theory, this sounds benevolent, commentators in the film point out that in reality the Pink Ribbon Campaign brings attention to breast cancer in the wrong kind of way. As Dr. Lauren Schnaper remarks in the film, “It’s a spectacle. It’s commercializing fear.”

Wegenstein sees a trend in American society in which this commercialized fear surrounds a sexualized breast. The diseased breast then becomes something of a hot topic, which Wegenstein explains can end up “infantilizing the fear [that patients] have” and the patient’s choice about whether to have their breast removed becomes more an act of capitalism than good will. Perhaps due to this fear instilled in women who believe the only chance to save themselves is through the loss of the breast— sort of an “act of martyrdom,” as Wegenstein describes it — there has been an increase in the amount of mastectomies performed on women in recent years. The media frenzy surrounding Angelia Jolie’s prophylactic double mastectomy in 2013, has not helped. Watching the celebrity drama unfold in the tabloids, it’s easy for women to get the idea that if they give up their breasts, they’re avoiding breast cancer. This is a myth that Dr. Schnaper puts to rest within the first five minutes of the film. Putting it bluntly, she says to her patient: “A mastectomy doesn’t save your life.”

To highlight this Americanized perspective on breast cancer even further and to introduce the religious motif of female martyrdom, Wegenstein traveled with the film’s two doctors to Catania, Sicily where they filmed the highly ritualized and vibrant event of the Feast of St. Agatha. St. Agatha, as legend has it, refused to have sex with a Roman soldier who had her breasts removed out of vengeance. She is often depicted in brutal illustrations, her breasts being removed by anything from knives to pliers. Her sacrifice in order to preserve her purity is immortalized in the symbolic removal of the breasts, but Catania celebrates her for the protection she gave to them when Mt. Etna erupted. While America appoints her their designated breast cancer mascot, Sicily remembers her as a protector of the people. “They have a more fatalistic or realistic view of mortality in Catania,” says Schnaper in the film. “We have all this crazy stuff to be immortal and all these vitamins you don’t need because you pee them out… This is America where we think we’re immortal… As a culture we are all wrapped up in immortality.”

Faith and religion play an integral role in the film. For Wegenstein, the symbol of St. Agatha was “reincarnated” in each of the four women who she interviewed. We see religion present itself in various ways. One of the women whose journey we follow, Shelia, fights her cancer with her belief in God. “I’m fighting for my life because God is with me,” she says in one of the film’s most moving moments, as she succumbs to an emotional breakdown. “He told me it’s not my time.” Another woman, Doris, seeks to find the perfect breast for herself after she goes into remission, resulting in a self-destructive journey that alienates herself from her own family. Then there’s Deborah, who in a few short scenes, we see in a personal and emotional struggle as she goes through breast reconstruction. Lastly, we see Carol, whose mother had died of breast cancer, choose transparency and openness with her family rather than keeping it a secret like her mother had— and whose mastectomy as she says, does not affect her “femaleness or where [she’s] going.”

That the last scene reminds viewers of the crucifixion is no accident. “I saw that ritual trope in it very strongly.,” Wegenstein said. “It’s provocative because it’s not a religious film per say, but I wanted to see a female crucifixion because in our culture there’s still a coupling of female strength and female martyrdom…. This figure of femininity that has to give up something important in order for her to shine or find her strength is something that is deeply routed in our Christian understanding of femininity. And I found this in the breast cancer myth and wanted to show it.”

To Wegenstein, breast cancer is not something that is purely medical. It challenges the way in which we view femininity, not as a view that is purely sexual or purely aesthetic, but as one full of multiplicities— that even in the sacrifice of the breast, there is still much more going on, not homeopathic, but rather an altering of a the cultural imagination surrounding the female body.

Wegenstein is a feminist and much of her work has to do with feminist theory and examining cultural institutions and media through a third-wave feminist lens. “The Good Breast” is in itself an exploration of how the loss of the breast impacts femininity and the female identity. To Wegenstein, breast cancer is not something that is purely medical. It challenges the way in which we view femininity, not as a view that is purely sexual or purely aesthetic, but as one full of multiplicities— that even in the sacrifice of the breast, there is still much more going on, not homeopathic, but rather an altering of a the cultural imagination surrounding the female body.

Now that the filming is over, the team of producers and assistants who have worked on the project have had time to sit down and reflect.

For Jon Reiss, the producer of “The Good Breast”, the project has been a rewarding jounrey. Reiss, whose body of work ranges from films to music videos to documentaries, first met Wegenstein in a distribution and marketing workshop. Wegenstein, as Reiss put it, hated this part of the filmmaking process and after realizing how well they both worked together, Reiss helped her get distribution for her last film. When she approached him with the “The Good Breast,” Reiss was fascinated by the concept, partly because he himself has been interested in body image issues and has mirrored that interest in his own work, and partly because they worked so well together.

“The Good Breast” is the first film that Reiss has not directed himself. This switch in roles allowed Reiss to see the filmmaking process from a different perspective. “It’s Berna’s point of view,” he says. “It’s also more a verity type of film… You don’t get to know anyone as in depth as you do in ‘The Good Breast.’ This film focuses on only a few people.” He, like many others involved in the film, has become invested in the life changes and growth of the women in the film.

Jane Cody-Scialom, Wegenstein’s teaching assistant/production assistant, has also developed a palpable connection to the women. She described watching the first rough cut of it as intimate and being “tethered to [Wegenstein] and the characters in a very meaningful way.”

Creating that attachment to the film’s subjects, of course, was very much ­Wegenstein’s intention., For her, the film isn’t so much about the medical and scientific technicalities of breast cancer so much as it is about learning more about the human self through a disease that impacts society in such an incredible way. It was not just about visually representing her perspective on women, the breast, and cultural implications of disease, but learning from the survivors and the patients of breast cancer themselves about what it is like to live with the illness in a society so fascinated with the good and bad versions of the breast. “If there is one thing I hope to be able to achieve as a filmmaker, feminist, and human being, it is the kind of intelligence and conviction that Bernadette exemplifies every day,” says Cody-Scialom. “She cares deeply about these issues and people and does not compromise when it comes to expressing that – whether its in the form of a film or not.”

Viewers of the film are immersed in these characters’ lives and have no idea where their journeys will take them. They experience what Wegenstein experienced when she made the film, perhaps in the most intimate and realistic way that a film can be felt. “I was attached to all of these women,” she says. “And every emotion that you feel in the film is one that I lived on set.”