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A breast cancer survivor reclaims her body in short documentary, “Grace”

Interview by Tom Roston. Originally published on Salon.com in April 2018.

Rachel Pikelny’s heart-grabbing and just plain real film “Grace” is a sincere and revealing portrait of Grace Lombardo, an Illinois soccer mom and cancer survivor who elects to get an elaborate tattoo to adorn her mastectomy scars.

CLICK HERE to watch the full documentary “Grace,” courtesy of Condé Nast Entertainment / SELF. 

Salon spoke with Pikelny about her very open and funny subject and how she, a cancer survivor herself, came up with such a subtle film that transcends mere advocacy.

How did you find Grace?

In September of 2016, I read a Chicago Tribune article about David Allen, a tattoo artist who was helping women heal after breast cancer. The process would not only cover their scars but also allow them to heal the deep emotional trauma and retake control of their bodies. The story just grabbed me. I’m a recent survivor myself and know all too well what’s left in cancer’s wake.

So I reached out to David and we met for breakfast. He offered to introduce me to a few clients on his schedule to be tattooed the following year. I wanted to film with someone who’d just finished cancer treatment and document her journey starting when everyone else thinks it’s “over.”

Grace was one of the women on David’s tattooing schedule. I did some sleuthing and found her blog, Grancer, which to my amazement, had 100,000+ followers and was at once raw and heartfelt, but also super witty and often, laugh-out-loud funny. We subsequently connected by phone, and based on her candidness and charisma, I knew she was the woman I wanted to feature in the film.

There are many intimate moments — the actual tattooing, talking about sex, talking with the kids — how would you say being the subject of the film influenced Grace’s experience?

You know, it’s hard for me to say. It’s like that movie “Sliding Doors”; I don’t know how this would’ve unfolded for Grace if I hadn’t read that article, hadn’t decided to make this film, hadn’t been there with a camera crew.

What I can tell you is that I tried my best to let events unfold as they happened, to not influence the story but to be there to capture key moments. I worked with veteran cinematographers like Dana Kupper, an expert cinema vérité-style shooter. She somehow manages to be at the center of the action, to get the shot, without disturbing the events’ trajectory.

Being a survivor myself, I knew all too well what Grace was experiencing post-treatment. I asked specific questions not to introduce Grace to new emotions, but to enable her to share universal truths about a survivor’s experience — truths that I, too, struggle to face.

I wanted to be especially careful about disrupting the family dynamic. I’m a mom to young kids, and I know that it’s important to address big topics — like, um, cancer — in whatever way is appropriate for your particular child. But I also knew that she’d be willing to go there. From reading her blog, Grace doesn’t sugarcoat, especially in conversations with her children and with her husband Joe. As she says in one post, “I speak to my kids like adults. This may screw them up or make them extra cool, TBD.”

The film doesn’t reference that you are a breast cancer survivor. Did you consider incorporating that into the film?

For a long time after my diagnosis in 2015, I wasn’t terribly open about my experience. I wore a pretty convincing wig and tolerated chemo fairly well, so many people didn’t even know I was in treatment.

After my hair started to grow back, I ditched the wig and finally decided to “come out” about my battle with cancer. Honestly, it was more to explain the motive behind my unsexy buzz-cut than wanting to shine a spotlight on my experience. As time went on, and I found my “new normal,” I became more and more comfortable talking about my experience. And that’s around the time I read about the tattooer David Allen and started this film.

I think it’s important that viewers know I’m a survivor. It gives authenticity to the film. But still, I didn’t want the film to be about me. In a way, Grace is somewhat of a surrogate for my own story — and the story of one in eight women out there. That’s the statistic. The details of every survivor’s journey differ, but there are some common threads — struggling with a new identity, issues with body image, changes in intimacy, fear of recurrence, and more.

I hear it was an all-female crew. Can you describe what the production was like, perhaps with an anecdote?

That was a decision I made very early in the process. I’ve worked with so many talented — and feminist! — male crew members over the years. But by taking extra effort to work with women, from the field crew to the editing team to the sound mixer, I wanted to make a statement that we own this story, that it’s an issue that affects so many of us and our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, daughters, and friends.

Of course, I also wanted Grace to feel 100 percent comfortable in the more intimate and/or scantily clad moments, though I think she would’ve been fine either way.

What was surprising and really disheartening was the difficulty in finding highly skilled, experienced crew members — particularly sound recordists — who are female. In documentary filmmaking, quality sound is essfpential. I did manage to meet and hire a couple great female sound recordists throughout production, but they’re scarce, even in a big production city like Chicago. I would love to see that change in the years ahead. I think female filmmakers and crew members have a responsibility to mentor and foster a new generation of talented women in this field.

My editor Katie Wrobel and I formed a very close relationship throughout the life of the film. She, too, is a breast cancer survivor, not to mention a crazy talented editor with a strong sense of story and artistry. The process of editing the film was therapeutic for me, as I had to think critically about my own experience as a survivor. I had many long conversations with Katie about bodies and feelings and everything else not fit for print. I don’t think I would’ve been able to go there with a male editor.

Has the film been used by cancer survivor groups? Who’s seen it so far?

The film has really been embraced by both the medical community and survivor groups. So far, we’ve shown it at the Young Survival Coalition’s national conference and others, to physicians and students at Northwestern Medicine’s Feinberg School of Medicine, and to several survivor groups and wellness centers. Earlier this month, Condé Nast Entertainment distributed the film online via its SELF channel. We’re continuing the film’s rollout with a festival premiere at DOC NYC on November 11th. The film has also partnered with Public Good. Click here to learn more about supporting survivors and helping them thrive.

We’re getting tons of requests to screen the film around the country, which is really exciting. Salon readers can actually request a screening in their city by emailing [email protected]

What are you working on now?

I’ve spent more than a decade working on docs as a producer, but this is actually my first big project in the director’s chair. I’d love to direct another project, when the timing and topic align, but in the meantime, I’m busy producing two other feature docs.

The first, “No Small Matter,” presents the far-reaching impacts of high-quality care and education for young children. It’s exciting to see the film just weeks away from completion after 4-plus years in production! As the mom of two kids under the age of five, this project’s also pretty personal.

The second film, “The Road Up,” is about to head into edit. It tells the story of three struggling Chicagoans who make the journey from rock bottom to gainful employment, helped by an inspired teacher with a surprising past. It’s a raw and revealing portrait of unequal opportunity and how extraordinarily difficult it is for people to change longstanding, toxic behavior when society, and their pasts, are working against them in every way. It’s a story that’s both deeply specific to Chicago, yet hugely resonant nationally.

Get to know an incredible woman, “Grace,” as she embarks on a new sense of self. Watch “Grace” by clicking HERE.

Originally published at www.salon.com

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