Oscar-winning Bay Area documentarians Allie Light and Irving Saraf (“In the Shadow of the Stars,” “Dialogues With Madwomen”) again balance human interest and instructional value to potent effect in “Rachel’s Daughters,” which scrutinizes the nation’s breast cancer epidemic. Hard-hitting, sometimes hard-to-watch docu made its TV bow Oct. 1 on HBO; subject’s increasing public visibility could bring limited theatrical runs, as well as a long life in broadcast, educational and community-outreach niches.
Helmers assembled eight women fighting the disease to form a support-cum-investigative group; the multicultural assembly’s age ranges from early 30s to late 50s. Having them interview various experts around the country — surgeons, researchers, pesticide authorities, etc. — in search of answers lends explanatory talking-head segs a more urgent, personal dimension.
Any answers, alas, are still mostly just guesswork — in the realms of cause , prevention and treatment alike. Breast cancer is largely an industrialized-nation illness, and there’s much reason to suspect that its spiraling impact on baby boomers and their female offspring is due to several decades’ poorly regulated use of man-made chemical compounds.
DDT and other pesticides (many still in use), birth control pills, plastics, electromagnetic fields from household appliances and workplaces, reckless medical X-raying, past atomic-bomb-test fallout are explored as likely contributors to this rising toll. We’re shown how cancer might invade healthy cells in several short animated bits. Side issues raised include the greater incidence of cancer death among African-American women, and greater toxicity encountered in poor communities (though middle-to-upper-class Long Island and Cape Cod neighborhoods also suffer mysteriously concentrated cases).
Some content here is difficult to take, from brief archival glimpses of radiation-singed Hiroshima survivors to shots of a severed operating-table breast. But protagonists’ bravery and dogged need-to-know activism is inspiring, making a clear case for drastically stepped-up research and governmental watch-dogging.
One of the original group, a young woman first diagnosed at 28, dies during pic’s course. Though a moment here and there comes close to preachiness, helmers stretch their canvas effectively for a poetical close in which dozens of black-clad women (repping disease’s past victims) line a verdant hillside. Tag informs that 180,000 cases are diagnosed each year in the U.S. alone; 44,000 succumb.
Dealing with a subject about which so many factors remain uncertain, Light and Saraf assemble vast amounts of conjecture and fact in engrossing, clear-headed fashion, thanks largely to astute editing. Vid-shot lensing will look better on the small screen, but “Rachel’s Daughters” — titled after famous ecologist-author Rachel Carson (“Silent Spring”), who pioneered the notion of environmental pollution as she herself was dying of breast cancer — packs punch enough to merit showing in any format.