'Mondays at Racine': Behind an Oscar-nominated film

From left, Cynthia Sansone, Rachel DeMolfetto, Linda Hart From left, Cynthia Sansone, Rachel DeMolfetto, Linda Hart from HBO's documentary film "Mondays at Racine" by Cynthia Wade. Photo Credit: HBO

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Linda Hart has been surviving cancer for 19 years.

She was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 1994, had her left breast removed and went into remission. In 2000, the disease came back as skin cancer, in 2004, it moved to her lungs, and in 2005, she had her other breast removed when the cancer spread there.

Today, Hart, 61, of Massapequa, is being treated for a recurrence of cancer in her lungs, her skin and spine.

She's grateful for many things -- becoming a grandmother eight times in the past 19 years, seeing her youngest daughter graduate from high school and the long, beautiful dark hair she once had between cancers.

The first time Hart underwent chemotherapy she wasn't bothered by losing her hair. She was more concerned with surviving. But all these years later, it's affecting her differently.

"It's taken a toll on me more so now than ever," she said. "I lost my eyebrows and eyelashes, I just don't feel like me. I don't feel feminine, I don't feel pretty."

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Restoring femininity

But in an emotional moment caught by cameras at Racine, an Islip salon that is the subject of an Oscar-nominated HBO documentary, "Mondays at Racine," Hart is fitted in a short, shaggy brown wig and long, curled eyelashes.

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"I feel cute," she says, beaming into a mirror. "I feel alive."

"Mondays at Racine" is a 39-minute documentary focusing on the one night a month Racine owners, sisters Rachel DeMolfetto and Cynthia Sansone, open their door to cancer patients free of charge. The women and their staff offer services like manicures, facials, massages and other beauty pick-me-ups.

But one of the most emotional aspects of "Mondays at Racine" -- and what initially drew co-producer and director Cynthia Wade to make the film -- is when a woman comes in to have her head shaved.

"It's really amazing to me, even now, every single woman that I interviewed -- and I interviewed maybe 100 -- said that losing their hair was more traumatic than losing a body part," said Wade, who has been making films for HBO since 1997. "They'll say, 'I'm OK with losing my breast, I don't want to lose my hair.' "

The film is a nominee for best documentary short at tonight's Academy Awards, and will air on HBO later this year. Wade won her first Oscar in the same category in 2008, and "Mondays at Racine," already has won many awards on the film festival circuit.

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Wade began researching the film with an idea to focus on nurses around the country and how they deal with the emotional nature of treating cancer patients. But the issue of hair kept coming up, she said, so she started to refocus.

She and her team, including co-producer Robin Honan, came across an item about Racine and their services online and set up an appointment to meet the women in 2009. As soon as they did, Wade knew she had found her subject.

"We knew it would take place at their salon," she said. "They are such a dynamic duo, so incredibly down-to-earth and compassionate. And they've been doing this program for years and years on their own time."

 

In memory of mom

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Sansone, 53, of Kings Park, and DeMolfetto, 49, of Blue Point, started Mondays at Racine 10 years ago to address the pain they felt after their mother, Mildred DeMolfetto, died from breast cancer in 1989 at the age of 58, and also their feeling of helplessness as they saw how unhappy she was while undergoing treatment.

"We saw her lose her femininity, her sense of being beautiful," Sansone said. "When she started to lose her hair, it was hurtful."

The sisters said they've helped hundreds of women over the years, and they've seen their business turn into an impromptu resource center for cancer patients as well as a therapeutic safe haven.

"We felt like every time we'd take care of somebody else, we'd be taking care of our mother," Sansone said of starting the service.

Wade said it's all captured in the film, from the sincerity of the two women who are behind it all, to the anxiety seen on the faces of the women who visit the salon to have their heads shaved. Sansone and DeMolfetto hold their hands, they cry as the first locks hit the ground, and they smile together at the look of relief in each woman's eyes as she looks in the mirror for the first time.

She said women tend to feel defined by their hair -- whether they realize it or not -- and so, when they lose it, they feel as if they've been erased.

Wade said throughout the two years she filmed "Mondays at Racine," she quickly realized how much cancer affected each woman's personal life, and began to follow two women into their homes.

One of them was Hart. Along with her cancer struggle, Wade captured the deterioration of her marriage, which Hart said has since been repaired.

Hart first started going to Racine when Wade began filming, and she said she feels blessed to have been brought into that circle. "When you go to Racine, you just feel like getting your nails done, your hair done and you walk out like a whole person," she said. "It's great to feel like yourself and for people to look at you and not know that you're battling something."

"Mondays at Racine" is screening Sunday at 3:30 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency at Wind Watch in Hauppauge, at the Long Island Film Festival. Tickets are $10 (adults) and $6 (seniors) and can be purchased at www.longislandfilmfestival.org or at the door.

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