Earlier this week, I attended the New York premiere of filmmaker Joanna Rudnick’s first-person documentary, In the Family, at the Paley Center for Media. Scheduled to run on October 1st on PBS, the film chronicles Rudnick’s efforts to explore the psychological effects of a genetic mutation (BRCA) that dramatically increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer in its carriers. Rudnick herself was tested positive for the mutation in her mid-20s, making her a central figure in the resulting narrative.
Rudnick says she only made a decision to appear on camera after realizing that almost no young, unmarried BRCA-carriers were willing to discuss their condition publicly. Nevertheless, her first-person approach not only brings an instantly stirring quality to the final product, but offers insights into the nature of journalism as well.
The film’s arc focuses on Rudnick’s dilemma about whether to continue close cancer monitoring or opt for a more drastic, and less risky, choice: undergoing a mastectomy and removing her healthy ovaries as a preventative measure. As she researches the impact BRCA has on relationships between boyfriends and girlfriends, mothers and daughters and husbands and wifes, she also turns to activist organizations, lawmakers, and a company that owns the patent to the BRCA genes (and consequently controls the cost of the genetic test).
In her work, Rudnick sheds light on modern-day healthcare dilemmas and includes several heartbreaking moments within individual families. On a professional level, however, I was most fascinated by her approach to the project. While she interviewed her subjects, from cancer survivors to geneticists, with impeccable professionalism (she is trained in science journalism and works as a full-time film producer), she also included several scenes in which she had literally turned the camera on herself and spoke to it, confessional-style.
She isn’t an on-camera natural, but Rudnick’s undeniably personal attachment to the subject she covers gives a new perspective to journalistic work: Had she not let the viewer see her own struggle as a BRCA-carrier, she would have unnecessarily left the viewers in the dark about her drive to tell this story.