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Dear Talula. A Film by Lori Benson

Reviewed By: Alysa Cummings
The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania

It appeared in my mailbox on a humid Saturday afternoon: a small DVD mailer with a Manhattan return address. Momentarily a total mystery until I ripped open the envelope and Dear Talula slid out and landed on my kitchen counter.

Then I remembered: there was an article about Lori Benson in a recent issue of MAMM magazine; this 38 year-old aspiring New York filmmaker with a 14 month-old baby girl (the Talula of the film’s title), who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and decided to document her experience on film. “It’s an extraordinary thing to process something as big as getting cancer through creating art,” she commented in the interview.

The MAMM article had intrigued me enough to pay a visit to her website (www.deartalula.com) and then reach out to Lori by email to request a copy of the film. Well, here was Dear Talula and I couldn’t wait to see it…

Lori Benson’s directorial debut is an intimate view of a young survivor’s journey through CancerLand, from diagnosis and preoperative testing through surgery, chemotherapy and recovery. The camera records it all in cinema verite style: discussing treatment protocols with her oncologist, taking part in a healing circle ritual led by her friends and supporters, visiting the health food store to buy green tea and herbal supplements, shopping for post-mastectomy lingerie, Lori’s first chemotherapy infusion. We even follow her into a first consultation with a plastic surgeon. In one of the film’s lighter moments, Lori shows the doctor a recent issue of Playboy to illustrate what she wants her reconstruction to look like.

As Lori’s story moved forward on the TV screen, I couldn’t help but play back in my mind my own cancer journey like a movie. So many thoughts and strong feelings bubbled up as I watched, even as a survivor with a soft cushion of ten years’ distance from my own breast cancer treatment. (As the old saying goes, time may dull some painful memories, but unfortunately not all of them).

So it’s not surprising that when Dear Talula ended there were tears in my eyes and heartfelt admiration for Lori Benson as a woman, young mother and filmmaker. What a gift she has created that can support young survivors as they find their way through treatment. What an amazing teaching tool for doctors and nurses in training to help them walk with empathy in the shoes of the cancer patients that they will treat. But the obvious must be stated: what a special woman indeed to face the camera head on, without vanity, without flinching, during such a time of crisis. “I feel like the film is a love letter to Talula,” said Lori Benson in an interview.

I have to believe that Dear Talula is a love letter to us all.