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Dementia doco puts its maker to the test

Redfern resident Renée Brack agrees she was crazy to have a lumbar puncture, MRI, PET scan and a battery of cognitive assessments in her quest to understand Alzheimer’s – the disease that finally killed her father in 2011.

“Of course, that’s an insane thing to do!” she admits. “Reminiscent of when Morgan Spurlock, earlier this century, filmed Supersize Me to see if eating McDonald’s for every meal for a month was really healthy or unhealthy.”

Renée’s initial plan had been to film a half-hour documentary about an exhibition of her father’s art she’d mounted posthumously to honour his memory.

One of her producers upped the ante – saying they should make a feature. The other asked her how she’d feel about getting tested.

“Well, not great,” was her immediate response – but then she had an epiphany.

“I realised it wasn’t Alzheimer’s that damaged my relationship in later life with my dad, it was my own fear and ignorance around Alzheimer’s that did it.

“Once I knew that, I thought, ‘Let’s just go with the old classic of facing your fears. Well, what does your future hold, Renée? Now’s the time to be brave.’”

The result is Ticketyboo, which premiered at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival on July 30, and it is definitely brave. It’s also a rollercoaster ride – raw and compelling.

The film probes the uncomfortable feelings Renée had pushed down about her dad’s Alzheimer’s and captures her guilt and grief about the things she did and didn’t do as he declined.

“This is even hard to admit now, but I was really miffed when my name was the first name he forgot.

“For a while I thought he was doing it deliberately – and I was wrong.”

Armed with insights gleaned during interviews with the dementia specialists, advocates, carers and people living with dementia who appear in the documentary, as well as through her own grief counselling, she says she’d do things very differently now. Capitalise on the really joyful moments she had with her father, and make the most of them.

“It doesn’t really matter now that he didn’t remember my name because one of the things he did remember is that he loved me.

“I lost sight of that while he was alive. I didn’t see it.”

The tests Renée undergoes in Ticketyboo are to confirm whether she’s at risk of getting Alzheimer’s, which affects up to 70 per cent of the nearly 500,000 people in Australia with dementia.

Dementia is also the leading cause of death for Australian women and the second leading cause of death for Australian men, after heart disease.

Dealing with the fear of a diagnosis of dementia is extremely difficult, Renée says, because it’s a disease with no cure. It’s also degenerative – so you don’t get better, you get worse – and you can “lose people”. A number of dementia sufferers in the film admitted they’d lost friends who didn’t know how to be with them – and a staggering 50 per cent of Australians don’t know how to talk to people with dementia.

It’s this lack of understanding and stigmatisation that makes many sufferers keep their cognitive degeneration a secret.

Renée’s father, Thom Bracks, tried to hide his decline from his family for around 13 years.

One day he disappeared for 16 hours – and it was this absence that led to his diagnosis.

“He loved to walk … and was very drawn to cliffs,” Renée explains.

On this 16-hour walk he threw all his money out of his wallet and replaced it with leaves. He ended up on Barrenjoey Headland near the lighthouse, quite close to the edge.

After he’d been found and checked over in hospital, the doctor confirmed he had Alzheimer’s. With hindsight, there’d been clues along the way. It all added up.

Throughout her career, Renée has completed numerous courageous assignments as a journalist, public speaker and filmmaker – including reporting on the war in the Middle East. But she says making some parts of Ticketyboo was harder than being in a war zone.

“Especially in the Middle East, it was quite intense because there were guns everywhere; bombs were going off every night. But I felt somewhat safer there than when I was heading in for my test results, because there could have been a bullet in them I wasn’t able to dodge.”

Another curveball came as the Ticketyboo team decided to start fundraising for the film in February 2020 and then the first Covid lockdown hit in March.

“We were in lockdowns on and off quite a bit over two years, which covered our preproduction, production and postproduction.

“I’m a single woman living without kids. And, although I like my solitude, working on something where I didn’t have a lot of therapy support in that time was very difficult and wondering whether I was making anything any good or if I was wasting my time.

“I’d also underestimated how retraumatising it was to relive a lot of it and also be the writer-director of it.

“I did a foetal on the couch, waving the remote like a magic wand at the television, desperate to go to any other world but the one I was living in.”

Ticketyboo got a standing ovation at its Melbourne launch – and Renée is glad that, at a grassroots level, the film is helping people to feel a little less fearful and a little more comfortable with interacting with dementia sufferers.

She has plans for community screenings, a Sydney premiere and repeats of her dad’s exhibition. She’s also piloting a DemSafe shopping centre – because research has shown shopping centres can be frightening for people with dementia and laborious for their carer.

The main message she hopes ordinary people will take from her film is to approach, speak with, and interact with someone who’s older if they seem confused or lost because it can mean so much to them, even life or death.

One example is Bernard Gore, who’d come up from Tasmania to visit family and got lost in Westfield Bondi Junction, and would’ve passed hundreds of people – but nobody recognised that he was out of sorts.

“To find his body three weeks later in a stairwell, and the door wasn’t even locked, is very sobering and tragic.”

On a much lighter note, Renée says Ticketyboo viewers should look out for Jessie the miniature dachshund, who provides joy for residents in one of the best aged care facilities her crew filmed in. Jessie’s cameo appearance in the film includes her “racing in the front door like the Jeff Bezos of doxies, running the show”.

Renée loves that Redfern is “a bit of a political hotbed. There’s a mix of artists … very rock and roll”. She can walk to work and get to the airport and the city easily. Her tiler also deemed her to be a Rabbitohs supporter after he claimed the red and turquoise tiles she’d chosen for her new ensuite were red and green.

At SAE Creative Media Institute in Chippendale, Renée’s a part-time lecturer in documentary and short film, educating students to think beyond themselves to community impact and what stories they can tell on screen to make the world a better place.

“Nurturing the next wave of emerging filmmakers is key to my personal happiness now. It’s also making up for what I didn’t do with dad at the end of his life, because he wanted to have an exhibition, but he was too shy – and I did nothing about it while he was alive.”

Posthumously, she’s getting it right.

_______________

Ticketyboo: A Secret in Plain Sight trailer – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oguXvN3jNfQ

Dementia Action Week is September 19-25, 2022

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