Bogosian premieres cancer documentary
What should medical professionals do when they can no longer save their patients’ lives? That question lies at the heart of What Love Is: The Duke Pathfinders 50, a new film by visiting filmmaker Ted Bogosian, Trinity ‘73, which will premiere at the Nasher Museum of Art this Friday.
The documentary explores the lives of 50 women undergoing treatment for breast cancer and their experience with the Pathfinders cancer support program. Created by social worker Tina Staley in her hometown of Aspen, Colorado, the Pathfinders program—which first collaborated with Duke Cancer Care Research Program in 2006—aims to provide cancer patients with the psychosocial support they need to cope with a life-threatening illness. Each patient is paired with a social worker, or “pathfinder,” who emphasizes spirituality, support and balance in an effort to alleviate any additional emotional suffering that a patient might experience.
Bogosian’s film stands out from other medical documentaries thanks to the director’s vision in creating a film that is equal parts poignant and informative.
“I decided to focus on the Pathfinders study because I felt I had seen other documentaries about cancer, especially breast cancer, and they all seemed to be the same film,” said Bogosian. “What makes this documentary different is the blend of scientific fact and personal communication, especially nonverbal communication.”
The women involved in the Pathfinders program, all diagnosed with metastasized breast cancer, participated in a two-year trial study during their treatment at Duke High-Risk Breast Clinic. Along with candid interviews from patients, the film shows therapy sessions between Pathfinders and patients, demonstrating how the social workers apply the tenets of the program in an effort to better the daily lives of cancer sufferers.
Bogosian describes the challenge in balancing the patient testimonials with the scientific achievements and goals of the Pathfinders program, admitting that the film wasn’t complete until the inclusion of Dean of the Chapel Sam Wells’ sermon about the subject.
“I didn’t know what the outcome of the study was going to be when making it,” Bogosian said. “When I finished, I decided that I still didn’t have a documentary that was going to be sufficiently different, so I issued this idea of a service to commemorate the study.”
Threaded throughout the film, Dean Wells’ sermon echoes the program’s approach of healing through spirituality and unity. “Death isn’t the worst thing that can happen,” Wells said. “The worst thing is isolation. It’s about accompanying people through the bleakest experiences in their life, which are death and bereavement.”
Many of the women in the Pathfinders study fill the pews during Wells’ sermon, where he also speaks about the loss of his mother to breast cancer in his youth. Wells offers a sense of hope that reverberates throughout the entire film. “I always say, ‘If it isn’t happy, make it beautiful,’” Wells said. “My mother’s death certainly wasn’t happy, but it inspired my ministry.”
Despite its somber topic, What Love Is offers an uplifting message by showing the positive effects of the Pathfinders program and the cognitive void that it fills.
What Love Is: The Duke Pathfinders 50 premieres this Friday, Sept. 23, at 6 p.m. at the Nasher. The screening is free and open to the public, and will conclude with a Q&A with director Ted Bogosian.