Carol Ciancutti-Leyva: Absolutely Safe Print E-mail


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At a time when more women than ever are getting breast implants, fewer voices than ever seem to be asking “Why?” And fewer still are asking “Are they safe?” ABSOLUTELY SAFE takes an open-minded, personal approach to the controversy over breast implant safety. Ultimately, ABSOLUTELY SAFE is the story of everyday women who find themselves and their breasts in the tangled and confusing intersection of health, money, science, and beauty.

At its heart, ABSOLUTELY SAFE is driven by the experience of the filmmaker’s own mother. Diagnosed in 1974 with breast tumors, Audrey Ciancutti underwent a double mastectomy with silicone-implant reconstruction surgery. A year later, her implants ruptured, and soon after, her health steadily declined. Like thousands of other women, Audrey believes her debilitating illnesses­joint pain, chronic fatigue, scleroderma-- are linked to her breast implants; however, most doctors and researchers deny this link. Among the debate by plastic surgeons, toxicologists, attorneys, implant manufacturers, whistle blowers, government officials and activists, ABSOLUTELY SAFE introduces more everyday women like Audrey who make choices about their breasts in our appearance driven culture.

27 year-old Deneé Dimiceli has long been insecure about her breast size, and she’s frank about why: a deep envy of pop culture icons and images of big-breasted women. Although her husband likes her breasts as they are and does not want her to take any risks by having surgery, Deneé chooses to go ahead with breast augmentation. Step by step, the film follows Deneé through the implantation process. With the help of renowned plastic surgeon Dr. Franklin Rose, Deneé becomes the “Full C” she has longed to be. Months after surgery, Deneé is happy and healthy, though she initially lost sensation in her breasts.

As Deneé makes the choice to get breast implants, we meet Wendi Myers who has spent years longing for a life without implants. After suffering unexplained illnesses for years­dizziness, hair loss, fatigue­Wendi believes her silicone implants are making her sick and that they are ruptured, even though the implants appear to be in tact. As a younger woman, Wendi was an exotic dancer and had to get implants to earn more money. With the financial help from her mother and the surgical skill of Dr. Edward Melmed, one of the few plastic surgeons in this country who argues that implants have severe flaws and cause illness in some women, Wendi makes a unique choice­to have her breast implants “ex-planted” and removed from her body forever. The remnants of Wendi’s implants, are an alarming discovery for Wendi and her family.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stands as the only traffic light at the implant intersection, for it is ultimately left to the FDA to analyze data and define risk. Billions are at stake as implant manufacturers lobby the FDA for approval of silicone implants and present studies which support no link between breast implants and disease. A data debate is at the heart of the FDA decision. Dissecting industry-sponsored safety research, a public interest watchdog acknowledges that the data does not prove a link between implants and illness, but probes the fact that the majority of the studies were based on short-term research. Meanwhile, physicians Dr. Ernest Lykissa and Dr. Michael Harbut maintain there are dangers associated with the platinum used in the making of breast implants. Dr. Lykissa, who studies chemical compositions of ruptured implants, wonders why there have not been any required studies on failed implants.

The story of ABSOLUTELY SAFE always returns to the women and girls who stand front and center­both willingly and unwillingly­in the traffic jam of beauty, media, risk, and “choice.” The quest for physical perfection leads the film’s characters to operating rooms, support groups, hospital beds, and public hearings. In a plastic surgeon’s waiting room, a patient is both enthusiastic about her own silicone implants and also shocked by tales of family friends with implant ruptures and sickness. At a support group of breast cancer survivors with failed breast implants, group leader and photographer Anne Stansell reveals that she never had the option to live without implants after mastectomy­her implants were presented as a given part of her treatment package. At a discussion with 8 year-old girls, the pre-teens flip through magazines rating beauty and breasts with sharp, judgmental tongue. Shockingly, the quest to be the “ideal beauty” begins long before breasts grow.

Even though the FDA recently lifted its restrictions on silicone implants and approved them for wide-scale use, many serious questions remain regarding breast implant safety. However, ABSOLUTELY SAFE reveals that the conversation on implant safety is far more complex than simple pros and cons. Rather, the real conversation, the most important conversation­with the most difficult and challenging questions­rests with viewers themselves, as all individuals in our culture ultimately face this confusing intersection of choice, risk, money, beauty, and health.

ABSOLUTELY SAFE sparks this long overdue cultural conversation.

“ABSOLUTELY SAFE offers women of all ages a unique set of perspectives about the true risks and benefits of silicone gel implants. We listen to women tell their stories, we hear from plastic surgeons with opposing views about the safety of these devices, and we witness illuminating footage from several public hearings conducted by the Food and Drug Administration. It is the perfect antidote to ads and TV shows that now routinely mislead women into thinking that these devices have been proven to be safe.” – Judy Norsigian, Co-Author and Executive Director, Our Bodies Ourselves

“This moving and disturbing film follows the journeys of two women, one seeking to have her leaking implants removed, the other seeking to have breast augmentation. Interspersed with these tales we meet plastic surgeons both for and against the surgery; women who have suffered mightily due to their silicone implants, including the filmmaker’s mother; and members of the FDA committee who decide whether or not to allow silicone back on the market. All along the viewer feels powerfully the impact pressures to be beautiful have and have had on American women. Breast implants clearly “solve” the problem while introducing myriad new ones. ABSOLUTELY SAFE should be mandatory viewing for every woman considering surgery. Watching the brutal extraction of failed implants from a patient’s chest wall should be enough to give anyone pause. And the young mother who decided to get implants shares with us her loss of breast sensation. A sense of sadness lingers over the scene. This film makes starkly clear that the female sense of inadequacy is not an individual phenomenon. Institutionalized sexism affects all of us. Destroying our health seems to be an acceptable solution. ABSOLUTELY SAFE bravely challenges the status quo.” – Diana York Blaine, Ph.D., University of Southern California , The Writing and Gender Studies Program

“Harrowing, human, and persuasive, ABSOLUTELY SAFE is an important and beautifully made piece that explores the sometimes deadly and disfiguring consequences of breast implants. Full of nuanced observations, the film chronicles the experience of women who are in various stages of either choosing to get breast implants, or to have them removed. ABSOLUTELY SAFE is a story that must be told and absolutely must be seen.” – Rob Moss, Director of Secrecy and The Same River Twice“

We were interested in this film as breast implants have become the most popular elective surgery in Israel in the last few years. It has also become affordable to almost everyone. We believe in educating our viewers as to all aspects of these types of surgeries and this film sheds a light on the possible dangers that are involved in these surgeries.” – Daphna Israeli, YES Network, Israel“

A compassionate and compelling look at the debate over the safety of breast implants, Carol Ciancutti-Leyva, in her directorial debut, begins from the personal (for nearly thirty years Ciancutti-Leyva's own mother. Audrey Ciancutti, has suffered from illnesses related to her ruptured silicone breast implants). Ciancutti-Leyva documents both sides of the debate; on the one side is Deneé Dimiceli, a healthy vibrant young woman from Houston, Texas, who has made the decision to have breast implants after years of insecurities over her breast size, and on the other side is Wendy Myers, a woman who was once healthy and energetic before having silicone breast implants in the 1980s. Myers believes that her health problems (dizziness, fatigue, joint pain, hair loss and nipple discharge) were caused when her breast implants ruptured in a car accident. Also on either side of the debate are Dr. Franklin Rose, a respected and experienced board-certified plastic surgeon in the United States who believes that breast implants, both silicone and saline, are safe products, while Dr. Edward Melmed, a unique board-certified plastic surgeon in the United States because he is one of the few plastic surgeons who is willing to remove breast implants without replacing them, believes that breast implants are making women sick. Ciancutti-Leyva gently guides the viewer through the double-speak of the world of cosmetic surgery to expose a deeper mourning that evolves from the realization that women's bodies are still the sites of violation with impunity. As Dr. Melmed even implies during one interview, breast implants would have never been approved had they been for men's bodies. A must-see!” – Carolyn Shimmin, Information Centre Coordinator, Canadian Women’s Health Network