Review: ‘Cancer in Two Voices’

As a personal chronicle of what it means to live with a fatal disease, for both the person afflicted and her longtime companion, "Cancer in Two Voices" is always engaging and often insightful. What distinguishes this documentary is its practical, matter-of-fact approach, showing the determination of two intellectual lesbians to make the most of their relationship while facing the impending gloomy news. In both subject matter and form, docu is perfectly suited for public TV.

As a personal chronicle of what it means to live with a fatal disease, for both the person afflicted and her longtime companion, “Cancer in Two Voices” is always engaging and often insightful. What distinguishes this documentary is its practical, matter-of-fact approach, showing the determination of two intellectual lesbians to make the most of their relationship while facing the impending gloomy news. In both subject matter and form, docu is perfectly suited for public TV.

Barbara Rosenblum and Sandy Butler, two Jewish academics, were engaged in a loving long-term relationship when the former was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1985. In a series of interviews, mostly conducted at their San Francisco home , the women reveal the shifts in their relations over the next three years.

Among docu’s most illuminating observations is Barbara’s realization that she was just the first among their friends to have cancer and that “many of my friends will see their future in the way I handle mine.”

As her lover, Sandy is most candid when she expresses her anger that Barbara won’t be there for her in her old age. A touch of humor inflects the basically serious expose when Sandy voices resentment at the reactivation of her heterosexual instincts, instincts that she had fought for decades.

The project began as a set of journals published in 1991 and augmented by original videos, made by Annie Hershey. The final interview with Barbara was taped just three weeks before her death, in 1988.

Tech credits are modest, given that the materials consist of homevideos. Still, there are some painful truths to be learned here about the more universal issue of coming to terms with death, whether natural or premature.

Cancer in Two Voices

Production

Produced, directed, edited by Lucy Massie Phenix. Executive producer, Sandra Butler. Original video footage, Annie Hershey. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Jan. 22, 1994. Running time: 43 MIN.
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