Monday, March 7, 2011

Interview with Kathleen Mullen

On March 3rd, I sat down with Kathleen Mullen, Director of Breathtaking, to ask her a few questions about the film. (Please see my previous post for details about the documentary.)

Photo credit: Kathleen Mullen

A:        Tell me a bit about what it was like to create the film.

K:        It was a long process. I don’t know if the film actually started when my dad was dying, but I started conceptualizing the idea that I wanted to do something. I was taking some photographs and Super 8. So I knew that I wanted to do something, but the real film came afterwards, and how I wanted to put it together came afterwards. Definitely with a lot of the photography and the Super 8, I was thinking that I wanted to document my father and do something around him and my family. So it was my family that was the inspiration, but it was also the issue, to be honest. How can somebody die of something that’s preventable? How can safety measures be taken to protect people? And why are we exposing people to things that are deadly? That was also the inspiration, too, those questions. My dad died of this disease, but it’s also a global issue.

A:        And I’m assuming, before your father became sick, that you probably had no awareness around this issue? It must have taken a lot of time just to do the research.

K:        Yeah, exactly, I didn’t really have any awareness, none at all.

A:        Well most of us don’t. I’m sure many who were watching the screening were introduced to this topic through your film.

K:        Well, and many have brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers who have died, right?

A:        Definitely. I’m wondering if making the film took you on a different path than the one you anticipated. You know, they say that authors often find that their stories take them in unexpected directions.

K:        I think I had it pictured as a much longer film, maybe more of a feature length film, just on a larger scale. I think it ended up being much more intimate, and shorter, and more focused on just my family and the issue in Canada. I wasn’t able to make it bigger. And also I didn’t want to, in the end. I wanted to keep it small, intimate, and focused.

A:        And so are you happy with the way it turned out?

K:        Yes. I mean I would have loved to have had a bigger budget and a little more help with it and all of that kind of thing, but I can do that in my next film.

A:        I believe this was your first investigate documentary?

K:        Yeah, it was my first documentary of that kind, completely. I did a personal experimental narrative documentary around my mother and my relationship with her, so I have done that kind of thing. But to do it more outside of that scope… my film is still a personal narrative, but to expand it to more of a documentary investigation is different. I had never done that before. It’s a lot more work, and a lot more research to get the facts. I had to ask myself often if I had all the facts.

A:        Did your trips to Quebec and abroad answer all of the questions you had when you first set out to make the film? Did you get all of the facts you needed?

K:        Yeah, and I got far more facts than what I put in the film, as well. I wish I could have expanded it a bit more, too. But I guess it was a question of, how do you tell a personal story, and how do you talk about a social issue or a global story? So it was this constant balance of keeping with the personal and also giving facts and information. That was a constant balancing act, of trying to tell that kind of story. I did learn more than I probably put in the film.

A:        I think you did a good of weaving in and out of the two without making it seem too jarring; the flow was good.

K:        I wish I could have given more information. In retrospect I wish I had given more information of why we are still mining it and what the arguments are. I did try to show that and explain that, but it could have been pushed a little further. That’s what the critics say! [laughs]

A:        Something to think about for next time, I guess. Was there a point when you were doing this investigation when it got so emotionally heavy that it would have been hard for you to continue? This is a terrible story, and the more you learn about it, the harder it becomes. Did it ever get so hard that you worried you wouldn’t be able to continue?

K:        It was hard to do, and it was very hard emotionally, and I feel like I worked through my grief. I had to sort of distance myself to some degree, like when I was in the asbestos mine in Quebec. I was going into an asbestos mine, and my dad died from exposure to asbestos. It was sort of unreal. I think the filmmaking process caused me a lot of anxiety in how to get this story told and how to tell it. But I never felt like it was too hard, because my dad went through so much. He did that deposition, and he was dying during the deposition, so what I was doing was never that hard in that sense. I wanted to tell his story.

A:        So your motivation was there, and you were always very well connected to why you wanted to do this. 

K:        Yeah.

A:        And in terms of getting your desired message across, are you satisfied with what is presented in the film, or would you do something differently if you had the chance?

K:        That’s what I was referring to before. Somehow I would have liked to have given a larger explanation around the safe use, and why I don’t think that works. I talked about it and showed it in pictures, but what is the reason why Quebec is still mining it? And it is about the fact that this is Quebec, and the government still gives money to Quebec, and the industry has a long history there, and the mining had a long history. So that is part of the reason, but I think there’s more to it than that. I would have been nice to have the time to do that. In retrospect I wanted to keep it tight. In some ways, there are explanations, and in other ways, there are no explanations. In some ways it just doesn’t make sense, even if people explain it. Like at the screening, when the asbestos lobby guy was there and he was trying to explain it. He was trying to make sense of it, and he thought it made sense, but I was trying to listen to him and thinking it didn’t make any sense to me. It doesn’t make sense. 

A:        That’s actually one of the things that I wanted to bring up. This asbestos industry representative you speak of was asking the audience to consider whether it’s possible that countries like India keep buying asbestos because their needs and economy necessitate such a product. If you could have responded to him, what do you think you would have said to him?

K:        Some people tried to respond by saying that they felt divided, because the people need the roads and rooftops, and what would they do without it? But so did we! And we got asbestos rooftops, and people started dying, so it’s no longer used in Canada. We’re saying the same things about the third world. We’re saying they need it, and that it’s low-cost, but that’s what we said 50 years ago, and we stopped using it. We’re shipping it there because we say it’s a good product, and it’s the only thing we can sell to these poor people – which is a very condescending thing to say, when you think about it – it’s the only thing they can afford to use. But in 40 years, they’re going to be dying, and they already are, and they’re going to have to stop using it, just like we did. So it’s not a logical argument. It doesn’t make any sense.

A:        It’s tricky to think about what would happen if Canada stopped producing the asbestos. And it’s true that there are probably other countries that would mine it and sell it anyway. What are your thoughts on what Canada’s role should be in terms of trying to get these countries to use different products?

K:        I think, finding alternatives that are affordable. In the Quebec mining regions, moving people into other kinds of jobs, developing other industries, something safe for them and for their families, that kind of thing. You know, looking for alternatives. We use alternatives because we don’t use asbestos anymore. What are the alternatives? If we can manage to live without asbestos, there must be alternatives.

A:        You mentioned that there will be other screenings around the country.

K:        Yes, in Ottawa, Vancouver, Hamilton, Sarnia, Windsor, and Montreal are happening, and San Francisco is probably happening. There is a lot of interest. I can’t keep up. I need help, somehow. But it’s good. It’s really good. I want it to get out there.

A:        Considering the wide audience that you will be exposing this information to, what actions are you hoping people will take as a result of watching this film?

K:        Well, to write letters and sign letters, and to take those types of political and social actions. The more people sign the letters and fight for this, the better. The fact that the asbestos lobby came [to the Toronto screening], I mean it’s probably because they’re a little nervous, right? They’re paying attention, so we have to work on that.

A:        When I was in primary school in Montreal, there was asbestos that had been sprayed onto the ceiling, I’m assuming as a fire retardant. There was a big fuss, and the ceilings were replaced. Has asbestos been used so widely that this film will resonate with people all across the country?

K:        Oh, absolutely, it’s all across the country. Your pipes are wrapped in it, sometimes it’s on ceilings… right now in the First Nations communities, it’s a huge problem because the houses were made with asbestos, and there’s been a huge exposure. There’s been a huge First Nations outcry about it because the houses were built with asbestos after people knew it was deadly. So across the country, there is resonance. One of my friends, her mother died in the same year of the same disease as my dad. So they know she was exposed, but they don’t know where or when or how. They just don’t know.

A:        Well I think this film will help to raise awareness and inspire action. Do you think you will be involved in any campaigns or other political pressure?

K:        Definitely. I think that I’ll be a part of it. I’m going to travel with the film whenever I can, and I’ll write letters or whatever I need to do. Absolutely. I don’t mind being a spokesperson for this. It’s important to me. It’s close to my heart.

A:        What advice can you give to those who have an important environmental or social justice message that they would like to convey using film?

K:        Well I think that when making this kind of film, you know, films with a message or films about taking action, then my advice would be to try not to be too thumping on the table with your message. I think it’s important to bring in a personal story, or bring in the heart up to the issue. I love activists and respect activists but a lot of them can be very intense, and it’s important to have them in your film, but it’s also important to have people who speak from their own personal experience. Many activists do speak from their own personal experience, and that’s where the activism comes from. A point of view is important, but also give a well-rounded picture of the situation. You look at the angles and try to understand “why”. Why is asbestos being mined? I tried to look up why. Have I answered it? I don’t really know. I have definitely posed some questions.

For more information and to organize a screening in your community, please contact breathtakingfilm (at) or visit Kathleen Mullen's website.


  1. The documentary sounds fascinating. It is always so troubling and confusing to try to understand why a country won't spend tax dollars eliminating a known toxin.

    I live in the Boston area. Is there anyway to view the film?

  2. You're right Lori, this is both troubling and confusing, and there are other examples besides asbestos.

    If you'd like to organize a screening in Boston, contact breathtaking (at) to see what's involved in the process. I'm sure your blog followers would be interested in helping, why don't you mention it there?