“We all have so many faces, so meof which must be kept concealed” Tamara Allen, Downtime
Over the past week social media outlets have been inundated with “no make up for cancer” selfies- a trend that initially started as a backlash in the face of negative comments posted about Kim Novak’s appearance at this year’s Oscars ceremony. Whilst the “unflattering” no makeup selfies were initially meant to be a show of solidarity for Novak, since last Tuesday this trend has taken an unprecedented turn. Women across the world have started nominating their friends to post their own no make up selfies and to donate to cancer research charities at the same time. According to the CRUK website the selfie trend has raised over £2 million in the past week alone.
Whilst any activity that raises such impressive figures must in some senses be wholeheartedly commended, the alignment of “a no make up selfie” with a serious need to fund research into cancer treatments is something I find troubling. Firstly because this campaign is indicative of a cultural commodification of cancer; of a desire to give a disease a face that is marketable, sellable and palatable. When we think of cancer, particularly breast cancer, we are encouraged to think of pink ribbons, of race for life, and of stand up to cancer concerts that unite the brave, the beautiful and the winners in the fight against the disease. We are continually fed an image pertaining to cancer that is wholesome and inspiring. Whilst these symbols of hope and defiance undoubtedly have an important role to play, we must not allow them to blind us to the other face of cancer. The grotesque face. The face that we seem incapable to confront in it’s entirety, because it is not wholesome, or safe, or in any way beautiful.
Cancer is a disease which is ugly and unforgiving. It is a disease which we have not made peace with, and which is still in the process of emerging from a dense fog of social prejudices and preconceptions. Despite sustained efforts from charities like CRUK and Macmillan there are still enormous social taboos attributed to cancers of the lung and heart. The misconception that men cannot be affected by breast cancer still remains worryingly rife. The mass commodification of the disease has an almost Thebian quality in that we, like Tiresias, are encouraged to inhabit a liminal space between blindness and seeing. The ‘marketable’ face of cancer that is projected through media outlets is both highly stylised yet strangely unfocused, and incomplete. It negates it’s less appealing counterpart- like a comic mask turned defiantly away from it’s tragic neighbour. It negates the fact that, despite our best efforts, cancer will kill 8 million people every year, and however grotesque a picture this might be, it is one we have to be willing to face.
My second objection lies with the notion of the selfie itself. Despite the stream of statuses professing ‘solidarity in the face of a terrible disease’ (cit), the root of this campaign lies in vanity and a desire for self-validation. Whilst I don’t doubt that many people who post these photos are committed to combatting cancer, the gesture of posting the photo itself is not a compassionate or a considered one. It is a gesture of conformity. It as an act which is designed to make others take notice; an act which ultimately allows us a glimpse at the carefully concealed face behind facebook and social media more generally. In projecting images or statements into an arena that is both public and participatory we are encouraged to comment and be commented on; we become both the validators and the validated. We look for likes, crave the comments which tell us that we are brave and beautiful, and look to be soon to be doing the right and socially normalised thing. This is a face that we all have concealed within us, and that we should not necessarily be ashamed of. As Allen’s citation highlights, human beings possess many faces that we can discard or repaint at will. But to conflate the face we project to the social media world with questions of the charitable and the compassionate is dangerous. In doing so we turn cancer into something that is about us. Fighting cancer is reduced to our individual act of bravery- our defiant streak of a Boots Aloe Vera wet wipe to remove that last trace of liquid eyeliner before we whip out our smart phones.
The truth is this campaign should not be about us. It should never have been allowed to become about ‘us’. Cancer is never about the healthy individuals who stand by and, for better or for worst, cast judgement about the disease. Cancer is about the people who are called to face the reality of living with a serious illness everyday. People who don’t have the option of reapplying concealer and going back to normal, but who seek to carry on as un dramatically and as calmly as they can. People who do not wish to be labelled as faceless victims or anonymous statistics, but who face the world with courage, with dignity, and with a determination to put up as much of a fight as they possibly can. They are the truly beautiful, and the true ‘face’ of cancer. And we must never, ever, forget that.
For anyone who has ever heard me go on about the uniqueness and beauty of remote Scottish Island life, but has never really understood what the big deal is, watch this beautiful video by Kensington for their latest single ‘Ghosts’:
The video is filmed on Out Skerries, part of the Shetland Isles, where some of my family lived for over 6 years. The landscapes bring back so many vivid memories of the remoter parts of Mull and Skye where my ever-moving clan finally settled after much trotting across Scotland and the wider globe. As a child, coming from the urban sprawl of London to join my aunties, cousins and Granny on these magical, wild Islands populated with burns, “cocoanut money”, and towering rocks covered with a carpet of (tenacious) sea pinks was one of the most incredible feelings in the world. They are landscapes that in my mind are synonymous with adventure, with love, and with freedom. They are landscapes that whenever too much time has passed, find a way of pulling me back even from the sunny shores of the Mediterranean on a Year Abroad. However boggy, and however fecking freezing they may be at times, they have a unique almost haunting quality which, for better or for worse will “get in your blood, and leave you hooked….for life”
Le temps des tempêtes arrive
Avant qu’on l’ait prédit
Quand tout s’abîme, quand même nos rêves fuient
Il ne reste qu’une île, un port, un parti
On n’est riche que de ses amis
As part of my Undergraduate Dissertation I conducted an interview with Italian film maker Simone Brioni on his latest documentary Aulo: Roma Postcoloniale, which has been distributed since 2012 by Kimerafilm (http://www.kimerafilm.com)
The interview focuses on Brioni’s use of what I dubbed ‘a revised form of cinematographic cartography’. His protagonist Ribka leads her spectator through the streets of Rome with an energy and force which is palatable, transforming the way we perceive, and relate to, the urban space with it’s complicated historical and sociological codes. Aulo is an attempt to root what has previously been rootless, it is a challenge to fixed ideas of commemorative sites and of a homogenous sense of home. Simple yet poignant, it is a testament to both Simone’s talent as a filmmaker and of the very pertinent nature of the changing role of spatiality that we are being forced to confront in an age of mass migration and global movement.
Perhaps the true power of the film lies not in direct confrontation of polemical issues, but in it’s subtle illusions to bigger questions which extend beyond the realms of the film space. When the walls of home come tumbling down, and when our relation to space and culturally legitimised sites of commemoration is called into question, where do we truly belong? When we are forced to constantly navigate “tra ombre e luce”, is it possible to put down roots? In Aulo' Brioni does not answer these questions. His role is, like the film's protagonist Rika, one of a guide. He is entrusted with the task of leading his spectator into a space “tra ombre e luce, tra ciele e stele” where such questions can be opened up and examined, where notions of boundaries, memory and mapping are not fixed but infinitely flexible. It is a task he performs with diligence, with elegance, and with skill, and I feel extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to work with him.