Foreign Puzzle is an intimate documentary that captures the journey of an inspiring Mexican American dancer as she communicates the impermanence of life through dance while juggling the roles of a recently divorced parent of a 6-year-old, a choreographer and a primary school teacher amidst intensive treatments for breast cancer.

Foreign Puzzle, a documentary exploring breast cancer through the eyes of a dancer/schoolteacher, takes a different approach from that usually employed in health topic documentaries. Instead of alternating personal narratives with medical expert input, this film applies a creative, experiential means to examine the true impact of the disease. As the subject of the film says, sometimes words are insufficient. Although Sharon Marroquin is undeniably articulate, she mostly navigates her experiences and feelings following her breast cancer diagnosis through dance. Indeed, the development of a brilliant modern dance performance based on her ordeal forms the backdrop for the medical/surgical procedures and other challenges (including being a single mother to an active young son) portrayed with an intimate honesty. Her struggle to come to terms with uncertainty and impermanence is examined in heartbreaking clarity in a lovely film that stands out among the more common health documentaries. Highly recommended.

Kay Hogan Smith, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences
Synopsis: 

For 18 months, the film follows the struggles of Sharon Marroquin, an accomplished choreographer and modern dancer in Austin, Texas. Cancer affects the entire family unit. When she gets diagnosed with breast cancer, Dali her son is five.  Sharon and Pepe got divorced two months before her diagnosis. She needs support, Pepe needs space and Dali needs his parents. Like any mother, Sharon is very worried for her son. How does breast cancer affect all of their needs? Dali is at a perfect age to process complex concepts of life and death in very simplistic terms. How does his understanding of life and death influence Sharon’s fears?

Suspended between life and death, she begins to channel her uncertainty about mortality into an artistic project. The artistic project, The Materiality of Impermanence, and the subsequent creative process allows her to escape to another realm that is not confined by physical limitations, disease, child-rearing, teaching and running a home. How this escape heals and shapes Sharon’s perceptions of life, death and living forms the narrative arc of the film. At its heart, the film is about love and living in the moment. The sheer resilience of the protagonist to put aside her pain and push through the insurmountable hurdles imposed on her by life and create a beautiful, raw and honest dance that embodies the brutality of the disease and the beauty of the human spirit will move and inspire every viewer.

Reviews

"Foreign Puzzle" is a film created with the utmost sensitivity.

The story of a dancer, mother, teacher, human, confronted with the possibility of her own mortality through her journey with cancer, the film is about so much more than illness. It is about the sacred act of dancing, in the midst of crisis. It is about dancing, no matter who you are and what your life consists of. It is about the sacredness of human relationships. And ultimately, it is about the triumph of human creativity that bolsters us in times of uncertainty and sends ripples throughout the world in ways inexpressible through language.

Cara Hagan, Associate Professor, Dance Studies, Appalachian State University

There is so much for all of us to learn from the film "Foreign Puzzle". First, the very subject of life and death is so universal and yet the film is so personal, that it serves as an excellent example of making a film that is both personal and universal. Secondly, the craft of putting together and juxtaposing what I consider "documentary gold" moments, like the content of the storybook being read out to Dali coinciding with the larger theme of the film, or moments where children come together with parents in these parallel ways, truly brings the film to focus out onto the larger picture of parenting, caregiving, and the subject of life and death. Last but not least, the film raises some extremely important considerations about the relationship between the subject and the filmmaker. For me, the moment when the filmmaker chooses to stay with six-year-old Dali is one of the most poignant moments in the film. It shows humanity and serves as such a great example for future filmmakers. 

Sonali Gulati, Professor, Photography and Film, Virginia Commonwealth University

Foreign Puzzle is one of the most powerful and potentially most influential films that I’ve ever seen that could be used as an educational film in schools for social work and other helping professions across the country and internationally.

Elizabeth C. Pomeroy, Ph.D., LCSW, ACSW Professor, School of Social Work, The University of Texas at Austin

Foreign Puzzle presents a portrait of a dancer in the process of making a concert piece while she juggles raising her child and receives treatment for breast cancer. We witness the artist in rehearsal integrating the themes of her current struggles into her work. We see how facing mortality, illness, survival and single parenthood find expression in her movement vocabulary. At other moments, Jeyeram balances her storytelling with scenes from the dancer's daily life; interwoven these two strands yield insights into creative practice as healing. We screened the film in my documentary production class with Chithra as a guest filmmaker. The portrait is an ideal case study for discussing ethics, negotiating access, and subject representation. It demonstrates how a strong collaborative relationship between subject and filmmaker can build a specific and intimate story.

Rea Tajiri, Associate Professor, School of Theater, Film and Media Arts
Director's Commentary: 

As a physical therapist turned filmmaker, I like telling stories about health issues from unique perspectives. Breast cancer changes everything and one has to learn to live life all over again. Foreign Puzzle unravels the cancer experience for health care providers and the family. It captures the range of emotions that Sharon Marroquin experiences over 18 months as she processes the illness, its onslaught and comes to terms with the uncertainty and impermanence associated with it.

The film functions as an educational tool for family and friends and raises awareness about the decimation one continues to experience – physically, emotionally, mentally and socially – even after the first year of arduous chemotherapy and radiation treatments. It helps oncologists, nurses, psychologists, and social workers watch Sharon up close and see a perspective about patient life that is rarely shown to them.