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From the dragon boat, stories of survival

During a four-month period, Jon R. Hand spent hours looking through the viewfinder of his hand-held Canon, at times holding it far from his body. He sat in a tippy, crowded boat. He got long shots from shore. He stood on a bridge to catch the boat cutting through the water.

Mostly, though, he captured the strength and camaraderie of Hope Chest, the local breast cancer survivors who race a dragon boat.

"I almost dropped my camera the first day out," said Hand, owner of Anton Video Film, who has made more than 100 short-subject films since 1970. "It was so scary. I don't swim. I don't feel safe in the water, and I'm holding my very expensive camera out over the boat and hoping I'm getting something good."

He hung on to record 20 hours of film, which he edited into the 53-minute documentary "Hope Chest: Life After Breast Cancer." The film premieres at 7 and 9 p.m. Friday in the Market Arcade Film and Arts Centre. (Tickets, $10 each, can be purchased online at www.hopechestbuffalo.com.)

"I think the women thought this was going to be like a home video," said Laurie Dooley, team founder. "They were so surprised."

Before Hand began filming, he watched several films on breast cancer, which he found overproduced and overscripted, he said. "It's as if they were done by advertising agencies to sell a product," he said.

Hand, in contrast, uses a gentle touch. No voice-overs. No "sappy violin music." No messages.

Just stories of women who have breast cancer, told through interviews with 12 of them.

One woman reveals that she heard about her cancer five minutes before her husband left on a weeklong business trip, and she didn't tell him until he returned. Another talks about not wanting to worry her pregnant daughter. A third describes the confusion over which treatment to choose.

While they talk, Hand switches to black-and-white film and sets them against a plain background, so there are no distractions from the stark reality.

"I just want you to see what's there," he said. "But I don't want people saying 'Oh, these poor women. My God, they have breast cancer, what are they going to do.' "

Just as firmly, he eschews scripts. "I refuse to write a script for a project like this," he said. "You don't know what's there until you film it. Then it comes together.

"How on earth could you script this?" asks Hand, who becomes so energized that he moves from chair to chair as he's being interviewed in his Kenmore home.

Within an hour of being on the dragon boat, Hand knew he had to make the film, he said.

"The expressions on their faces, the close-ups, and being just in awe of what they're doing . . ." he said. "Here's a group that really takes care of itself, that takes life under control. It's easy to say, but difficult to show."

He does by showing their workouts at the Jewish Community Center, their bus trips to races, their practices in the Buffalo harbor.

He also includes archival footage of them getting into a boat for the first time just before they race in Toronto. They learned to paddle by sitting around the swimming pool of trainer and founder Laurie Dooley, whose efforts have made her a candidate for an award that others can vote for at www.volvoheroforlife.com.

"My big goal is to start more teams," said Dooley, who wants to submit the film to PBS and other outlets. "There isn't any reason why every city couldn't have this type of program."

Especially captivating are scenes in the Buffalo River, where the 44-foot boat passes monolith grain elevators and goes under the Skyway, sharing the space with birds and boats.

And it's Hand's use of sound -- the hum from a riverfront factory, the splash of paddles, the incessant beating of the Chinese drum -- that sets the rhythm.

"The sounds become an actor as well," said Hand. "I don't deal in theatrics, but I use focus, color, tones, sounds."

And he uses silence. Segments, soothingly and simply, allow a viewer to soak in expressive faces, wind blowing the women's hair.

Most footage was shot in the morning, providing a warm look, but Hand asked the team to gather for an evening shoot for the crisp, blue light of late day.

He was rewarded. An enchanting final scene shows glistening water, described as "dancing stars" by team member Babs Conant.

"It was a Zen-like metaphor," said Hand. "When I saw it on the computer, I couldn't handle it. I just tucked it away.

"One of my challenges was how to end the film, so with this, I got out easy. When you make films, you pray for these moments."

e-mail: pvoell@buffnews.com

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