Mary Katzke: Between Us:

Mary Katzke got both the idea and the money for her latest documentary unexpectedly: via a life-threatening illness.

Misdiagnosed in 1991, Katzke later found she had advanced breast cancer, requiring massive chemotherapy. Dropped by her insurance company, she sued her doctor to cover medical bills, promising herself that if she survived five years, she’d make a film for other women in the same crisis. With her settlement, she created a life-affirming video, Between Us, for hospitals to give to new breast cancer patients.

Growing up on a southern Minnesota farm, Katzke first longed to be an actress, but found her focus by age eight, making home movies and 8mm documentaries with her father, an engineer and weekend farmer. She’s worked as a director and screenwriter ever since film school (University of Texas at Austin, class of ’79). Her nonprofit production company, Affinityfilms Inc., is based in Anchorage, where she lived in the eighties, smitten after a summer vacation. Since a full scholarship from New York University for an MFA in film (’92), Katzke has divided her time between Manhattan and Alaska.

Documentaries remain her specialty. She’s explored domestic violence, homelessness, rape, and the Exxon Valdez spill. Her films have been shown on public television, at the Museum of Modern Art, Sundance, and at a dozen other U.S. and European festivals. But making Between Us was different. The video cost far more than her settlement held after medical bills; fundraising was difficult. "Breast cancer funds are available for prevention or research, but not to tend the wounded," Katzke rues. Her actual budget came from a series of grants that arrived unpredictably: $5,000 from the Susan Komen Foundation; $3,000 from Alaska Run for the Cure; $5,000 from Zeneca (maker of tamoxifen, used in breast cancer treatment); $11,000 from Martin Lehrer Foundation; and $1,500 in tiny grants, for a total of around $30,000.

Between Us took four years from research through editing. "I didn’t make a cent, [beyond] paying my own salary so I could live with no other income for the time it took to pre-produce, shoot, edit, and do much of the marketing. Large expenses went on my credit cards until a grant came through," the filmmaker recalls.

The video was shot on digital format with a DVC ProCamera lent by Panasonic, who also donated some tape stock. To cut location fees, Between Us used co-producer Joanne Singer’s Manhattan apartment. To change backdrops behind the various interviewees, a volunteer set designer brought throw rugs, curtains, and colorful bouquets. The self-help video, shown at New York Women in Film & TV’s 20-year retrospective and the 1998 Breckenridge and Fort Lauderdale Festivals, has just won an Independent Vision Award of $5,000 from Dockers. Between Us is also the centerpiece of a care package to comfort the newly diagnosed. A 100-minute phone card, Kleenex, notebook, pen, scented candle, and handwritten note from a local survivor are in kits assembled by partner Janet Burts in an Alaska airline hanger. Katzke hopes they bring the help she craved when finally diagnosed.

"Right away, I needed to see other women had made it, how they got through it–even before [joining] a support group," maintains the producer/director. "We created the video for a specific target audience–176,000 women [diagnosed with breast cancer] each year." The producers are currently self-distributing through a toll-free number (logging several orders each week) and web site [www.]. They also meet with hospital administrators to introduce Between Us, hoping they will bulk-purchase kits. With price breaks above 10 units of either video or kit, the typical order has been 200. Hospitals in Alaska and Oregon are giving out Between Us kits; Florida and other Oregon hospitals distribute the video.

"We’re trying hard to find a national sponsor to underwrite free distribution. So many hospitals tell us they’d love to provide this to patients, but have no funds for any extras," sighs Katzke, who sees Between Us as a basic, not an extra, for anyone facing this life-threatening illness. A major Nashville HMO has agreed to distribute 35,000 kits–if a sponsor is found. In Alaska, Burts kept calling Blockbuster executives until the company made a contribution to cover the cost of duping tapes. Each Alaska location makes one video available at no charge as a community service; all 11 stores have waiting lists. Having sold about 2,000 videos, Katzke’s team is "still shaping and forming our outreach plans."

They’re frustrated when patients rave about how much Between Us helps them, and doctors report that women come back more relaxed and believing in their recovery–yet "hospitals say they have no money and want one $20 copy to put in their library. It’s hard to put my foot down and say no, this project is meant to be given away [to patients]. For one tape, you have to pay the institutional rate of $250. Then they drop it."

As a filmmaker, Katzke still endorses the "don’t let lack of money stop you" approach, but admits, "I only did this with no money because I had to–we had no choice and simply had to get this out there." As a change of pace, she looks forward to her next documentary, Precious Cargo, which will recount her crosscountry drive with her newborn adopted child this fall. Contact: Between Us, (888) 353-HEAL;;

About :

Carol Milano, a New York City-based freelancer, writes about health and the arts.