On Tuesday, the Center for Education of Women marked its 50th anniversary with a celebration of women in film at the Michigan Theater, an event that included screenings of six short films as well as a question and answer session with director Cynthia Wade. The exhibited short films addressed a variety of complex, intersectional issues - ‘Stairs To No End (http://www.oanim.com/5384)’ explored freedom of thought, ‘You Can Touch My Hair (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jpak8kkVT4U) ’ followed a provocative interactive art exhibit and probed the racial, social and gender dynamics surrounding black women’s hair, and ‘Undressing My Mother (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x65waoOY6B0)’ painted a loving portrait of age and beauty.
With a run time of 48 minutes, Cynthia Wade’s documentary ‘Mondays at Racine’ was both the longest featured film and the most emotionally exhausting. The film follows a salon on Long Island that offers monthly free services to female cancer patients, exploring the convergence between illness, appearance and marriage in the stories of women who frequent the salon. Salon owners Rachel Delmolfetto and Cynthia Sansone also provide pedicures, makeovers, and emotional support in addition to head-shavings for clients who are losing their hair from chemotherapy treatments. For the women featured, the head-shaving represents a reluctant embrace of the inevitable physical changes caused by chemo – they describe the change in appearance as a kind of forced confrontation with the ways that illness changes their self-identity, repeatedly articulating the fear of looking in the mirror and only seeing a cancer patient. The film uses the salon’s services as a jumping off point for profiles of two different salon customers, 36 year old Cambria and 58 year old Linda.
Wade explores Cambria’s struggle to combat her diagnosis of Stage 3 breast cancer while parenting her young son and continuing with her husband in the adoption process of a foster child. As her husband provides firm support and partnership, Cambria voices her personal doubts and fears about her future to the camera. Her desire to live manifests itself in her expressions of love for her children, her fears that they won’t remember her, and her longing to see them grow up.
When Wade focuses on Linda, who has combatted her breast cancer for 17 years, we see the latent stages of the isolation caused by her years of illness and treatment. Linda and her husband Warren fail to communicate with each other, explaining separately and sorrowfully how the suffering caused by Linda’s illness has slowly eroded their relationship. As Warren acknowledges his burgeoning alcoholism, he expresses his feelings of helplessness in gendered terms – he feels that he has failed Linda because he hasn’t been ‘enough of a man.’ Towards the end of the movie, the couple separates and Warren moves out of the house – however, in Wade’s question and answer session directly after the movie she explained that Linda and Warren reconciled after viewing the movie together and hearing each other’s separate interviews. Wade described how the couple enjoyed attending festivals to promote the film together, often sharing their perspective on illness and marriage in question and answer sessions. The film ended with Linda’s decision to discontinue treatment, and Wade responded to questions about Linda’s well being by gently informing the emotional crowd that Linda had passed away peacefully last summer.
As Wade explained in her introduction, the stories of chemotherapy and suffering were heavily intertwined with themes of endurance, marriage, partnership and love. At the end of the film, a woman with long auburn locks enters the salon cheerfully, calmly explaining that she is undergoing chemo and ready to shave her head. Before her head is half shorn, she is trembling and weeping. “I hate it,” she says weakly, as Cambria and Linda offer support. Her boyfriend meets her at the salon and cradles her shorn head as she cries – he holds her, quietly reassuring her of his love, telling her that she is still beautiful.