One rainy afternoon this spring filmmaker Francine Strickwerda entered the El Diablo coffee shop in Seattle. She ordered a cubano latte and then sat at a table overlooking Queen Anne Avenue. She looked around the busy room. The scene brought back memories of a time, a few years before, when she was working on her first documentary, a film about breasts. “I wrote a lot of grants for Busting Out sitting in this coffee shop,” she said.
Five years in the making, the hour-long movie is, in her words, “a strange mix of pop, politics, and history, and economics, and health, all these things that have come together to create these attitudes around breasts in our culture.”
“This story has always been inside me,” Strickwerda says. Her childhood was shaped by her mother’s death from breast cancer in the 1970s. And ever since, she has struggled to understand the strong currents of sexuality and taboo associated with a body part that for her meant discomfort and death.
“I didn’t get it,” she says. “There’s just so much heat in the culture around breasts, what’s the deal?”
Her grant-writing didn’t pay off. So she turned to her community, finding support from local artists and arts foundations, raising money with a comedy show benefit. She also found people who loved the topic and were eager to share their own stories about breasts. Some were insightful, some very personal, and some embarrassing. Then there was the TV exec who loved the idea of a breast movie and wasted no time in telling Strickwerda that he preferred small ones to large.
But not everyone liked the idea of the film. One doctor said he didn’t want to see a film that mixes breast cancer with strippers and sexuality. He said he’d rather see a straight documentary just about the disease. On the flip side, “It wasn’t sexy enough for cable,” says Strickwerda.
The documentarian honed her interests in journalism, health, and social issues as a communications student working on The Daily Evergreen. “When I first started working there, it was like, ‘Oh, oh, I’ve found my place,'” she says. Some of the reporting she remembers best involved a controversy surrounding the placement of condom vending machines on campus.
After graduating from Washington State University in 1989, Strickwerda went to work at a small paper in Hailey, Idaho. She later moved to the Seattle area and wrote for The Progress, a newspaper for the Catholic archdiocese. Then it was a mix of freelancing, contracting with Microsoft, working on children’s educational software, and volunteering at KCTS, the public television station.
Somehow, she found time to develop her documentary.
In pursuit of her story, she took her camera to the Seattle taping of a Tom Leykis show, an adult radio program that promotes “Flash Fridays” during which an on-air Leykis exhorts female listeners to show their support for the program by exposing their breasts in public.
She also sought out Deena Metzger, who wrote a book about her mastectomy and in 1978 posed shirtless, arms open wide, and face turned skyward for the cover. The portrait known as “The Warrior” serves as an icon for breast cancer survivors.
She followed a mother and daughter on a bra-shopping expedition, and went with a woman through a surgical breast enhancement, following her into the operating room. The stories are interlaced with the comments of professors, doctors, an anthropologist, burlesque dancers, and regular folk.
“I guess what I wanted to do with the film was not be judgmental,” says Strickwerda. “It was a journey, and I wanted to take the viewers along with me and explore.”
Woven throughout is her own story, one of losing her mother, feeling awkward about her own development as a teen, and exploring the culture and politics of breasts while coming to a better understanding of herself. It was hard to step in front of the camera, which is why she relied on her friend and co-director Laurel Spellman Smith to push her out of the shadows and into the scenes.
There’s even a family in the documentary that mirrors Strickwerda’s. “I wanted to understand the experience that I had a little better,” she says. When she was growing up, her family and friends didn’t deal with grieving or death or body parts very well. “I was hoping it had changed,” she says. Visiting with the family, and talking with the children about joining a cancer support group for children and coping with their mother’s disease proved “that it has,” she says. “I think it was a really healing thing for me to find a family like this and to hear their experience.”
While the project was made “on a shoestring” and hasn’t yet broken even, it has met with success, airing at film festivals, health conferences, and on Showtime. Last fall it won a CINE Golden Eagle, and this year was named a winning title in notable videos for adults by the American Library Association.
Now she’s dreaming about her next documentary.
“I think that Busting Out really isn’t about breasts, it’s about how we see women in our culture,” she says. “I’d like to do the same thing with men.”
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