Uncovering History

Archival producer Becca Bender on finding the photographs and footage that illuminate history

Perhaps nothing is more iconic than the historical photographs and archival footage that decorate a Ken Burns film. Finding these historical gems, and getting permission to use them, is a challenge that falls to archivists like Holly Siegel and Becca Bender, archival producers of Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies.

The Producers’ Blog sat down with Becca to discuss how she became interested in documentaries, her love of archival research, and her hopes for the film. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


The Producers’ Blog: When did you first become interested in film?

Becca Bender: I remember first becoming interested in film as a kid – specifically films of the Jim Henson “Labyrinth” variety. I always sort of envisioned myself as somehow being involved on the puppet side of film.

As a film production major at Vassar College, I primarily focused on feature film, since documentary was sort of an afterthought in our program – as I think it was at most colleges and universities at the time. However, as my senior project, I directed a documentary about the revitalization of downtown Poughkeepsie, NY and loved it.

As part of the project I needed to find old footage of the city to use in our film. I wound up going to the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, NY where I found some amazing footage from 1915. It was my first time encountering the archival side of the filmmaking world and I was just totally enamored with it.


PB: Tell me about some of the archival work you are doing for Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies.

BB: Recently I’ve been reading through the daily schedules of medical philanthropist and activist Mary Lasker.  Lasker kept incredible notes of her life’s work to raise support for cancer research and the Mary Lasker Papers are actually housed here in New York at Columbia University.  The archive includes everything from photographs to audio interviews, to legislative documents, to lists of people in her life. For example, there is a list of people who remembered Mr. Lasker’s birthday in 1948, and another list of Christmas gifts the Laskers bought in the early 1950s.


As we have been putting the film together, we have been faced with the unique challenge of telling the story of Mary Lasker’s work behind-the-scenes. She was continually communicating with Members of Congress, Presidents and other decision makers in Washington, DC., but most of that was happening where no cameras or recording devices were present – private conversations over cocktails or behind closed doors at the White House and in the halls of Congress.

In brainstorming how to visually tell this story, we realized that we could look at the detailed daily calendar of Mary Lasker, which included so many of these meetings with individuals like President Johnson, Senator Javits and Senator [Edward] Kennedy.

What’s amazing about going through her calendar is that you get a look at this very rarefied part of American society, which is alternately unbelievable and mundane. On any given day the calendar can include ‘lunch with Mrs. FDR’ or ‘dinner with President and Mrs. Truman’ and then at the same time ‘call doctor Farber, pick up Dr. Farber for lunch.’ There is even a week where Mary Lasker was sick, and the calendar said, ‘sick in bed, sick in bed again, have a virus.’ It’s an incredible look into her life, and a unique glimpse at a moment in American history.


PB: How do you find something like that [Mary Lasker Papers] to use in your films?

BB: Each project is different. When it comes to someone’s personal papers often you have to look to libraries in the city where they lived, or their alma mater, or you may even contact historical societies in their hometowns.

Research often starts online, but it would be wrong to say that research is all online. What’s so fun – and why I’ve loved working on this project – is that we have enough time and financial support to actually go out into the field and visit libraries, and find individuals who can provide us with the artifacts to illuminate our understanding of cancer.


PB: Are people generally pretty willing to share their personal stories with you?

BB: I definitely find that usually they are. Of course, you have to know that maybe you don’t ask for things right away. A lot of it is relationship building, and you have to make people comfortable.

For Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, we were hoping to gain access to some historical medical records, and in order to get them I traveled to Yale University, where I got to know a doctor in his 80s who is the defacto keeper of these medical records. During my visit, I was able to build a personal relationship with him and let him take me on a tour of the hospital, share stories about what we’re trying to do, etc. Only after that was I able to gently ask to see the records. Ultimately, I think most folks – including the doctor at Yale – are willing to share their materials with you, but a large part of an archivist’s job is to figure out the relationships you need to build in order to access those materials that you can then include in your film. It’s the fun, problem solving part of this job.


PB: Is that the biggest challenge of archival?

BB: To me, the biggest challenge is that I like doing it so much – I could research forever.

When you’re working on a deadline, you’re never going to find everything. Eventually you’re going to be talking to someone and they’ll say, ‘you know who you should have talked to?’ and you’ll realize that there is another great opportunity for your film.

I love the many challenges of archival research, but the biggest challenge for me is turning the switch off and being okay with stopping.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy

PB: How did you learn your craft?

BB: It was trial and error with a couple of really wonderful teachers.

Two of the biggest lessons I learned was that when it comes to archival research, you not only need to find the assets (photos, videos, etc.) that you’d like to use, but you also need permission to use them, and in many cases you need to pay for that permission. Those are really big parts of the job – and when you’re dealing with documentary budgets, you need to be creative.

For example, on an early documentary I worked on, Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed, we wound up making a deal with a major Hollywood executive to swap a tax write-off in exchange for permission to use a film that he had shot when he was in his early 20s about Shirley Chisholm.

Over the years I’ve learned that in order to succeed as an archivist, you need to learn to never take ‘no’ for an answer.  When someone quotes you a price, that’s just a jumping off point. You have to continually ask: ‘what if we struck a deal like this? Or maybe like that?’


PB: Is there anything in Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies that is your favorite achievement as an archivist on the film?

BB: One of my favorite achievements was convincing Dr. Emil Freireich, who helped lead the historic VAMP Trials of chemotherapy treatment, to find and send us his handwritten notes from those trials. Through those notes I was able to track down a patient from the VAMP Trials who is still alive, and was willing to share her medical records with me.

That domino effect of research is also very common in archival work – you are busy researching one thing and then you read a newspaper article and it includes a reference to something else, which then yields another great historical tidbit for your film.


PB: What’s your hope for Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies?

BB: One of my friends who is 37 has been undergoing chemotherapy treatment for a couple of years and I’ve been trying to support him throughout. I always think about him and if he’s going to want to watch it, or if his family will want to watch it too.

I do think that this series is incredibly important so that people really start talking about cancer. The odds of any one person being diagnosed with cancer are higher than most people may imagine. I think it’s important that we as a society talk about the disease and normalize it a little bit more. Finding a way to talk about the disease and increase our understanding of it would be a wonderful achievement.


Photo credits (from top to bottom): 

Becca Bender. Photograph courtesy of Becca Bender.

Mary Lasker’s daily schedule, 1964 – Photograph courtesy of Becca Bender.

Mary Lasker, Dr. Sidney Farber, Senator Ted Kennedy, 1969 – Photograph courtesy of AP Images

Dr. Emil Freireich’s VAMP trial notes, c. 1963. Photograph courtesy of Becca Bender.

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