In the countdown to the IDA Awards, we've been spotlighting our nominees and honorees, either through previously published articles or through fresh new pieces.
Here's an interview with Cynthia Wade, director/producer of Mondays at Racine, a Best Short Award nominee.
Synopsis: Every third Monday of the month, two bold, brassy sisters open the doors of their Long Island hair salon to women diagnosed with cancer. As locks of hair fall to the floor, women gossip, giggle, weep, face their fears and discover unexpected beauty.
IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
Cynthia Wade: I was a theater major in college, but I burned out on the audition process. I hated standing in a hallway waiting to read a few lines just for the slim chance of participating in a creative process. I usually didn't get the part. I was told I was too tall, my hair was too dark. I grew weary of someone else being the gatekeeper. I didn't want other people to decide whether I could join the creative endeavor. I wanted more control and autonomy in the realm of storytelling.
So I picked up a camera in college. I made two documentaries as an undergraduate at Smith College, and then after working for a couple of years post-graduation, I attended Stanford University's MA program in Documentary Film. I learned the technical aspects of film-shooting, editing, lighting, sound recording-and then spent eight years in New York City working as a camera operator for other directors. In 1998, I co-produced and shot a national PBS special called Taken In: The Lives of America's Foster Children (directed by Vanessa Roth). In 1999, Grist for the Mill , a personal documentary I directed, shot and co-edited, aired on Cinemax. That was the beginning of the launch of my production company and my career as a documentary director.
IDA: What inspired you to make Mondays at Racine?
CW: I was interested in making a film about why, in the face of a cancer diagnosis, losing hair is such a shocking, traumatic and extreme experience. When you are facing potential loss of life and health, how is it that losing your hair is such a devastating event?
What I discovered is that hair is just the tip of the iceberg. In losing your hair and eyebrows and eyelashes, life as you know it is stripped away, both cosmetically and psychologically. The delicate web of how you perceive yourself, how others perceive you and how you negotiate the world all come into question. It's the first domino in a long chain of falling dominoes. Many people start to question other things, too: relationships, jobs, dreams, goals. Marriages that once worked can struggle. Even the slightest and smallest disappointment can bring up years of unspoken conflict. All bets are off. The hair falls, and other parts of their lives follow.
This can be traumatic, but it can be liberating, as well-especially when women find a community that supports their experience. For two years, I shot in a Long Island salon called Racine, where two sisters (Rachel and Cynthia; their combined names created the salon's name, Racine) open their doors on Mondays to women undergoing chemotherapy. Mondays are typical days off for most salons, but Racine is open at least one Monday a month to help women regain a sense of lost self. Heads are shaved, locks fall, lashes are applied, eyebrows are drawn, facials and pedicures and massages are all available for free. This sounds trite, but what happens as the customers are followed home over the course of two years is anything but trite.
IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
CW: I wanted to make a serious film about seismic changes happening unexpectedly in marriages. But at the same time, I wanted the film to have lighter moments-even burst-out-loud laughing moments. Because the lighter moments are there, too. They're a real part of the experience.
I ended up shooting a year longer than I originally expected because the stories unfolded slowly, relationships changed over time. I also spent time casting our "couples" -double interviews in which various couples talk about how cancer has affected their personal and intimate lives.
One husband wanted nothing to do with me. He avoided me for a year. I accepted that he would probably never be part of the film. Then one day he texted me. We ended up having a three-hour interview in which he expressed feelings he had bottled up for 20 years. It was very intense and very, very sad. Then he avoided me for nine more months. I wasn't sure what to do with the footage. Then, on the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, he called me to say he wanted to be part of the film. We filmed some more. He told me that he was really afraid that he would be cast as the "bad guy" because he felt like he'd completely failed as a husband.
At our first festival screening, he got a standing ovation-not because he was perfect in the film, but because he was honest and imperfect. He called me after the screening and said, "All this time, I thought I was the villain. And then I saw the film and I realized that cancer is the villain." A weight had been lifted from him: He didn't have to drag himself around feeling like the Bad Guy anymore. At the Hamptons Film Festival-the backyard of the Racine Salon-he was able to speak in front of 300 people, including members of his neighborhood and church. It was amazing to watch, and such a terrific relief to me.
Articles about other nominees in the Short Award category: