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CYNTHIA MCKEOWN

By Erin Trahan

Gets Personal and Political

Janice receives chemotherapy (Still from ONE IN
EIGHT: JANICE'S JOURNEY Cynthia McKeown,
videographer). 

After watching a stirring documentary, it’s common for an audience member to share her personal story with the filmmaker. Though most will nod with attentive respect, it’s less common for a filmmaker to take down the viewer’s name, research help, and make calls on her behalf.

Not so for Cynthia McKeown, a self-described shy woman who enrolled in film school “because I had so little confidence in my ability to tell a story.” An introvert, maybe, but don’t let McKeown fool you. She’s a quiet storm of deeply felt politics and a determination to tell the stories of everyday people who do extraordinary things. Her most recent example is ONE IN EIGHT: JANICE’S JOURNEY, a gripping documentary about a local woman’s fight against breast cancer.

Filmmaker Cynthia McKeown and subject Janice Fine at
a pre-screening reception for ONE IN EIGHT: JANICE'S
JOURNEY.

Naturally, McKeown studied power and power relationships in college. Her background also includes labor organizing, policy work, teaching at UMASS Boston’s Law Center and Gerontology Institute, fundraising, and program development for community health centers. She explains, “As an organizer, you create something from nothing. You get a vision of what you want to change and you get people behind your vision.” According to McKeown, her background as an organizer and fundraiser helped her hone the skills of persistence and believing so much in something that “you feel like you are willing others to believe.”

Janice contemplates wearing a wig (ONE IN EIGHT: JANICE'S JOURNEY)

Believing in your film can be the hardest part of the job. McKeown describes it as a leap of faith, acknowledging how difficult it can be for artists to feel legitimate. “We can get to feeling ‘I went to this college and I should be making this amount of money.’” For her, it’s easy to feel invisible in the long years between finished projects. “To make whatever mark on the world, you have to really love the process,” she says.

Apparently McKeown heeds her own wisdom. She makes the audience care because she cares. One of the most powerful features of ONE IN EIGHT: JANICE’S JOURNEY is how easy it is to feel close to the main character; Janice confides in the audience like a close friend. McKeown devised shooting techniques to showcase Janice’s natural charisma. As often as possible, McKeown “would make eye contact with her and nod when asking questions.” She explains that she wanted it to feel like two friends conversing, adding that “it felt intimate [on-screen] because it was.”

While one thread of ONE IN EIGHT: JANICE’S JOURNEY is intensely personal, McKeown develops a second, equally important political story: that of the epidemic increase of breast cancer among women, focusing on the community of Long Island, where Janice grew up. The decision to include the Long Island activists emerged organically as both women’s interest in the breast cancer movement grew. “We come from a feminist tradition that the personal is political and vice versa,” says McKeown of herself and Janice. The commitment to both threads is evidenced by the title. And the scenes in front of Janice’s childhood home make a perfect transition. McKeown explains that the reality is that many breast cancer survivors, including Janice, become activists. “To separate the stories would be inauthentic. That is who Janice is!” McKeown demands.

It’s especially meaningful to McKeown when audiences see themselves in her films. After a screening of ONE IN EIGHT: JANICE’S JOURNEY, a woman who had breast cancer years ago told McKeown, “People would say I was so brave. But I was just putting one foot in front of the other. Now I see this film and Janice’s story is my story. She’s an amazing person and I see how I’m an amazing person.” True to form, McKeown adds to this recount her desire for women to feel empowered, even heroic, particularly around health.

One in Eight: Janice's Journey screens at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on October 4, 2004. 

“It’s harder for women to speak up,” she says. She believes women are trained to be more concerned about other people’s feelings and welfare. In the doctor’s office especially, women feel like they shouldn’t make waves and symptoms get chalked up to too much worrying. “The important message of the film is to trust yourself. If you believe something is wrong, you need to make sure you are getting the best possible treatment.”

Another sound piece of advice from McKeown: “I learned early on in fundraising, you make people say no three times - then you can walk away.” Even Janice, a white, middle-class, and educated woman of privilege, went a year and a half before getting an accurate diagnosis. McKeown doesn’t believe in a single magic path for finding the right doctor, getting a film made, or waking up inspired every day. As she says, “I know incredibly talented and famous people who struggle with every project they make to get it seen. It doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.” In fact, it can literally save lives.

For more information about McKeown’s latest film, visit www.oneineight.net 

Erin Trahan is a writer and nonprofit consultant who loves both personal and political films. She is the outgoing president of Women in Film & Video/New England.

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