Women’s stories this week

LIfetime’s FIVE

Carol Morley’s DREAMS OF A LIFE




Directed by

  • Demi Moore (“Charlotte”)
  • Penelope Spheeris (“Cheyanne”)
  • Jennifer Aniston (“Mia”)
  • Alicia Keys (“Lili”)
  • Patty Jenkins (“Pearl”)

This film (a series of five shorts) aired on Lifetime on Monday, October 10, a work co-sponsored by Walgreens (Way to Well) and Ford (Warriors in Pink).  Echo, the production company Jennifer Aniston runs with her producing partner, Kristine Hahn, also had a hand in the production.  FIVE is a series of films meant to call attention to the crisis of breast cancer, encourage women to take care of themselves and remain vigilant, and to raise money for breast cancer research and a cure.

It’s a very inspiring series of films, beginning with Demi Moore’s “Charlotte,” told from the perspective of a small girl (“Pearl,” who is the one person connecting all five stories) who wants nothing more than to see her mother who is kept behind a closed door — she is dying of breast cancer.  No one will tell Pearl what’s wrong.  The backdrop of this is the lunar landing in 1969 which everyone in the house (lots of relatives) seems intent on watching.  Pearl isn’t interested, however, and insists on seeing her mother.  Eventually, she is allowed to, more out of pity felt by the adults than anything else, and she shares her drawing with her mother, “Charlotte” (played by Ginnifer Goodwin).  Her mother gives her a necklace which Pearl eventually gives to her own daughter.  Moore does a great job at evoking the frustration and desperation of a child who doesn’t know what is happening to her mother, and the adults are often shot from the shoulders down, much as a child would see them.

Continuing with the story is Penelope Spheeris, who directs “Cheyanne,” about an exotic dancer who learns from her doctor (Pearl, now an adult, played by Jeanne Tripplehorn), that she has breast cancer.  This is after her husband feels a lump, and her world is turned upside down with the realization that she will lose both breasts.  Will their relationship survive?  How can he help her?  Out of all five of the films, it’s the one which spends the most time focused on the reaction of a partner of a person with breast cancer.  His world is turned upside down, too, but he’s finally able to come to terms with it. Despite their problems, they start to work them out, and decide to start a family.  A touching moment ends this film, when he unzips her shirt and strokes and kisses her scars.  Cheyanne is obviously self-conscious, even scared.  Spheeris does a great job here of treating these characters (and this issue) with respect and tenderness.

Patricia Clarkson rocks her role as “Mia Newell” in Jennifer Aniston’s film.  Diagnosed by Pearl, who has by now diagnosed many a woman with breast cancer, it’s made up of flashbacks, beginning with Mia getting married (her husband played by Tony Shalhoub).  We move through Mia’s mock funeral, a bittersweet and hilarious yet sad, scene, to her (now ex-) husband leaving her while she’s in the midst of treatment and convinced she will die, to meeting her current husband (Shalhoub), to her diagnosis from Pearl.  Clarkson is one of my favorite actresses, and she tackled her character with such dignity and respect, it was quite impressive to watch.  This film also stars Kathy Najimy as Mia’s best friend.

Alicia Keys directs “Lili,” the story of a young woman played by Rosario Dawson, who finds out she has a lump that needs to be removed.  A dedicated and super-busy professional with an assistant, she has to navigate the very choppy waters of her relationship with her narcissistic mother played by the brilliant Jenifer Lewis, with support from her sister, played by Tracee Ellis Ross.  Dawson plays this character with a quiet steeliness:  she is a no-nonsense professional woman, but in the end, finds that she does, in fact, need the support of her mother and sister.  They refuse to leave the waiting area while Lili is in out-patient care, but she returns, not being able to face the doctors preparing for the lumpectomy.  Keys does a great job with a scene shot in the hospital bathroom, a highly emotional scene where Dawson and Ross confront each other on how they grew up and how difficult a life Lili had without any support from her much older sister.  Jeffery Tambor also plays a small role, a man who has also been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Finishing off the series is the Patty Jenkins-directed “Pearl,” all about the woman who ties all of these women together (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn).  She not only saw her mother die of breast cancer, now that she’s a mother and an oncologist, she also finds herself diagnosed with breast cancer.  The film begins with her narrating a scene showing dozens of women going about their daily lives — she gives us an omnisicient glimpse of their lives, some as breast cancer survivors, others training for a race to raise money for the cure, another not yet knowing she has breast cancer….  While she receives a great deal of support from her husband (played by the great Alan Ruck), she finds that her father, now in his 70’s, still resistant to talking about his wife (“Charlotte” from Moore’s film of the same name), but Pearl insists and he wonders why.  She tells him her diagnosis but yet he still refuses to talk about it and she leaves in anger.  Even telling her young daughter is too much for her, a huge thing to have to talk about with a child, and she finds a way to do it with her husband’s help.  In the end, it is Pearl who “kisses the wall” (survivors kiss a wall of glass tiles in the hospital, leaving a message and an impression), with all the characters from the other films which she had diagnosed with breast cancer, surrounding her with their loved ones.  Finally, her father shows up and gives her a present that reminds her of her mother, and the reconciliation process begins.

Such a misunderstood disease even as recently as the late 1960’s, we’ve come a long way (not just in the film) to acknowledging the importance of finding a cure for breast cancer and talking about this issue openly.


Still from the film Dreams of a Life. This is a scene from the apartment of Joyce Carol Vincent, dead three years before being found in her apartment



Directed by Carol Morley

While combing through the twitter feeds on Tuesday of all the people I follow, I came across a story posted by Hawai’i Women In Filmmaking.  The link read simply: How could this young woman lie dead and undiscovered for almost three years?  I had to click on it.  Just the question, let alone the incredible story I read, gave me pause.  If this is true, I thought (about the article title), how did it happen?  How do we live so quietly within our own little worlds that we don’t notice that someone who lives, literally, on the other side of the wall, has died and been decomposing for three years?  How do we not notice this?  How have we built so many walls (literal and metaphorical) around ourselves that someone living 10 feet away through the wall or through the front door dies and we have no idea?  This way of life amazes me, and so many of us are guilty of it.  Her story haunts me, and I keep wondering, specifically, how did THIS woman, Joyce Carol Vincent, end up in that London bedsit, dead, with no one from her family and none of her neighbors knowing — for three years?  I want to see this film.

Joyce Carol Vincent, subject of the documentary Dreams of a Life

The story of the making of the film and the reconstruction/ excavation of Joyce Carol Vincent’s life is told with such eloquence and passion by the filmmaker, Carol Morley, in this article published October 8 in The Guardian. She has made the film, Dreams of a Life, which will be screening on October 16 and 18 at the British Film Institute’s London Film Festival.  Carol tweets @_CarolMorley and @dreamsofalifeuk.  The Facebook page can be found at: http://www.facebook.com/DreamsofaLife.  The film will be released in cinemas in the United Kingdom in early 2012 and is distributed in the UK by Dogwoof.



  • “I Came to Testify” (produced & written by Pamela Hogan)
  • “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” (produced by Abigail Disney, directed by Gini Reticker)
  • “Peace Unveiled” (produced by Claudia M. Rizzi, written by Abigail Disney, directed by Gini Reticker)
  • “The War We Are Living” (produced by Oriana Zill de Granados, written by Pamela Hogan and Oriana Zill de Granados)
  • “War Redefined” (produced & written by Peter Bull)

This is a major undertaking, a five-part series airing weekly on PBS, with the first film having aired on Tuesday night.  The next four Tuesdays at 9PM eastern will be the schedule, so tune in if you can.  The first film is a subject which I know enough about to know I need to know MORE about.  The horrifying stories shared by Bosnian Muslim women who were systematically raped and enslaved by Serbian soldiers (during the war/genocide in the early-mid-90’s) were the glue which held together the case against three Serbian military commanders held at The Hague.  This case was the first to establish rape as a “crime against humanity” and as a “war crime.”  One of the attorneys who defended the Bosnian women shared the story of how the Nuremberg trials virtually eliminated the participation of women and ignored the crime of rape, lumping it in with general “war crimes.”  Astonishing that it took 50 years to have rape classified as it now is under international law.  By the way, three women led the charge to bring this case to The Hague and defend the dozens of Bosnian Muslim women who were treated with such incredible inhumanity.

While it exposed the atrocities in great detail, this film also showed how empowering the event was, allowing these tortured women to assert themselves and proclaim their dignity.  After all, stated one of the defense attorneys for the women, they did not know if these men would be convicted, but they all (16 of them in total) determined to share their stories, tell the truth and try to make a difference.

Information on Women, War and Peace can be found on the PBS website.  The first episode, “I Came to Testify,” can be viewed online through PBS.