MENSTRUATION MATTERS

(This post also published at the blog g6pix.)

I’ll try not to sound too fan-girlish here as I write about the documentary Scrambled: A Journey through PCOS by Randi Cecchine, but admittedly, it is a difficult task. For in this film, which chronicles Cecchine’s struggle with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, we meet a filmmaker brave enough to show us, wart-hairs and all, the challenges inherent in this disease embodied. She does so with humor, with information, and with space for personal reflection.

As Cecchine and the health practitioners she speaks with share, PCOS is a condition that affects 8% of women but that goes under-diagnosed. Though largely undetected in the women who have PCOS, the first sign of something wrong is the absence or change in the menstrual period. According to Cecchine’s participant Dr. Geoffrey Redmond, an endocrinologist who has studied female hormone problems for over twenty years, PCOS generally shows up during puberty or shortly during the menarche period. In his interview, he argues that a delay of fifteen years in diagnosis typically occurs because “people who care for teenagers are typically not clued into this condition.”

In popular rhetoric on menstruation and menstrual suppression, there are many voices who have argued that having a menstrual period is unnecessary and should be done away with through hormonal birth control regimens (for example, Lybrel, Depo-Provera and Seasonale.) These drugs are often presented as choices to girls and young women close to menarche. Scrambled serves to intercept this discourse by demonstrating how the cycle becomes a sign of imbalance and illness. This film reminds us of the value of attending to the menstrual cycle. In Cecchine’s case, as in the case of the many women she interviews in her film, the lack of a period is a personal introduction to the disease.

Cecchine works with a light yet serious tone. A visit to Harry Finley’s Museum of Menstruation underscores the connections between menstruation, body awareness and PCOS. Yet we are able to marvel and smirk at Finley’s collection of menstrual advertising and decades old menstrual protection products which now live in his basement. As her lived investigation continues, Cecchine meets up with the Polycystic Ovarian Association (PCOSA) at their conference. There her film does remarkable work, as it invites the viewer to join in the conversation. In the scenes around the conference, we see how this film works to invite fellow PCOS women into the information Cecchine has gleaned. Though knowledge will not cure one from the illness, certain techniques shared in the film (like limiting carbohydrate intake) will result in reduced symptoms.

In the recent release of the film, which is self distributed, Scrambled is a two disc set. The first disc includes the documentary, but the second disc is chock-full of informative interviews on a variety of topics. Cecchine profiles Redmond along with many other health workers practicing western, eastern and alternative medicine who speak of the options for treatment. These include diet alterations, drug regimens, psychotherapy, acupuncture and others. In this disc, Cecchine provides the tools for a viewer with PCOS to address her syndrome through many methods. By providing information in this manner, Scrambled becomes a guide and a tool for holistic health on a personal level.

But these treatments comes at an expense. Here Cecchine’s humor bubbles up again when she shares the different techniques, like hair removal, pills, acupuncture treatments and their resulting costs. Yet, the feeling that comes afterward: “Priceless!” Bitingly Cecchine reminds us that being a patient also involves being a consumer. Therein she complicates these treatments as choices and necessities simultaneously.

Cecchine’s work follows in the tradition of Judith Helfand’s Healthy Baby Girl (1997) which, also in the first person and with humor, tells the story of Helfand’s illness with cervical cancer at the age of 25 (Helfand’s illness was the result of her mother, and mothers like her, taking the drug DES.) But Cecchine’s work also maintains experimental qualities, akin to those in the tradition of Su Friedrich’s similarly themed The Odds of Recovery (2002) which leave space for reflection by the viewer. In Scrambled, a score of tonal hums and drones, clicks and zaps create these necessary moments for reflection. In these spaces a viewer may consider her own wellness or wonder whether she knows her body enough to identify the signs of PCOS. Cecchine encourages an empowered understanding of one’s body, making Scrambled a tool for education and insight. Be sure to (order and then) watch with your notebook in one hand and the pause button in the other. There is much to take away here, but no better lesson than the importance of listening to one’s body.

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