Though it covers medically contentious ground, Meghan LaFrance O'Hara's highly personal cancer doc makes a persuasive plea for better self-care.
“It’s time to stop being afraid of cancer — it’s time for cancer to be afraid of us.” Lent a warm sense of authority by the dulcet tones of Morgan Freeman, this aphorism encapsulates the upbeat, constructive tone of Meghan LaFrance O’Hara’s documentary “The C Word,” an impassioned advocation of preventative cancer treatment that brazenly counters the methods of Big Pharma. Unapologetically subjective and plainly from the heart, the film is personally rooted in O’Hara’s own battle with the disease, though it’s another cancer warrior who emerges as its primary hero: French physician David Servan-Schreiber, whose vocal campaigning for integrative oncology divided the medical community and, according to the filmmaker, gave her a new lease on life. If “The C Word” finally plays as an extended PSA for Servan-Schreiber’s theories — with Freeman’s narration bringing a particularly advisory tone to proceedings — it’s still a sprightly one that should find its largest and most engaged audience through VOD channels.
Mere months before being diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2008, O’Hara received an Oscar nomination as the producer of Michael Moore’s “Sicko,” a brasher, more aggressive jab at the American healthcare system. With its warm help-me-help-you spirit, “The C Word” (O’Hara’s first directorial venture) could hardly be more different in tone from Moore’s film, but it’s similarly skeptical of existing national institutions and the accepted wisdom they promote. That said, some viewers may have more questions than others regarding the film’s ardently expressed faith in the findings and teachings of Servan-Schreiber, whom O’Hara (who sporadically shares narrating duties with Freeman) describes as “the scientist, the patient and the doctor all rolled into one.”
Having been given months to live following the discovery of a malignant brain tumor in his early thirties, Servan-Schreiber went on to survive another 20 years — first through surgery, though following the tumor’s recurrence, he set about developing his controversial “anticancer” method. Focused less on combating cancer cells than strengthening the bodies resistance to them, “anticancer” is built on four rather simple tenets: nutrition, exercise, stress management and the avoidance of toxins. (Though this philosophy fits right into the currently fashionable, occasionally precious discourse on “wellness,” Servan-Schreiber is refreshingly plainspoken in articulating it.)
His principles aren’t in themselves particularly startling: It goes without saying that eating healthily and engaging in physical activity are essential pointers for anyone, with or without cancer. But the Frenchman’s testing-backed insistence on them as a universal defense against the disease has been derided as “well-meaning tosh” by some medical experts. Whichever side of the debate you fall on, O’Hara’s film invites sympathy as it takes healthcare institutions to task for failing even to promote such standards of healthy living: In one droll but pointed aside, a young cancer patient expresses his befuddlement at being served a sloppy joe in hospital immediately after his operation.
“The C Word” gains conviction as it expands its argument beyond the medical realm to take on the big-business entities abetting the toxic unhealthiness of the American lifestyle with chemically unregulated products and addictive foodstuffs crammed with sugar and additives. The public backlash to New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to place restrictions on soda servings is ruefully referenced: “Standing up for the right to hurt yourself,” as O’Hara puts it, is an American liberty of debatable virtue. The film suggests, however, that change is afoot. Among the wealth of experts in the film’s talking-head gallery is Don Barrett, the Mississippi trial lawyer who famously took on Big Tobacco on behalf of the state in 1990s; he has his righteous sights set on the food industry next.
Content takes precedence over form in O’Hara’s stylistically shaggy filmmaking, which nonetheless moves at a fair clip thanks to a trio of editors’ brisk meshing of new interviews, archive material and roughly stylized animation sequences. (Sporadic pop-oriented cutaways, whether to Jim Gaffigan standup riffs or decontextualized sitcom snippets, add a smart-alecky note that the film doesn’t necessarily need.) Musical selections are lively throughout, with The Faces’ 1973 hit “Ooh La La” — with its famous “I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger” refrain — aptly reflecting the film’s prevention-minded combination of hopefulness and regret over the closing credits.