Overview: Huntington’s disease is an incurable hereditary degenerative brain disorder that results in the progressive loss of mental faculties and physical control. In the acclaimed documentary THE LION’S MOUTH OPENS, two-time Academy Award nominee Lucy Walker (HBO’s Emmy-winning THE CRASH REEL and THE TSUNAMI AND THE CHERRY BLOSSOM) follows courageous young filmmaker and actress Marianna Palka (pictured) as she gathers her friends to find out if she has inherited Huntington’s from her father. Featuring interviews with Palka, her mother and her friends, including actors Jason Ritter and Bryce Dallas Howard, as well as home movies from her childhood, haunting videos of people suffering from the illness, and footage of the moments before, during, and after she gets the news, THE LION’S MOUTH OPENS chronicles one woman’s decision to face her demons and receive this potentially life-altering information.
Expectations: At only 28 minutes in length there is not much to expect. We are introduced to the cast of characters, if you will, the disease and it effects, the appointment with the doctor and the after effects of the results. It is simple look at a stressful time in this young lady’s life.
Gut Reaction: This is about a young woman coming to terms with her destiny, her future and her demise. We get enough information in the short half hour it takes to find the results of Marianna Palka’s genetic screening for Huntington’s disease to understand so much. The story actually can serve as an example for us all. The attention here is specifically geared towards Huntington’s and whether or not Marianna has the genetic markers for having it in her take over her life in the future. But it could serve as an example for anyone facing a likelihood of terminal illness. How do we process the information? What do we tell our friends? How do we face the doctor? How do we choose to live our life going forward? We each in turn will deal with those questions. Here is how this young lady works through it.
I think it is no surprise that Marianna, due to her family history, is going to be found positive for the disease. We don’t have much of a documentary if we don’t have that result. It all happens so quickly as the doctor states the facts. Think about it for a moment; that is all I ask now and that is all the documentary indirectly asks of us as well. Ms Palka has seen first-hand how the disease robs you of mental and physical abilities over time. And now, we almost certainty, Marianna knows the means of her demise. It will consume her like a lion’s open maw closing over her and it is frightening. Yet, she shares the moment with friends and the camera. In those moments she draws us in. Yet she lives her life as boldly as she can and in those scary moments we pray she will endure. It leaves quite an impact in only 28 minutes. It makes us wonder how we will face the moment when we learn of our demise.
Bonus: To flesh out this post a bit further we found a brief interview with the films director Lucy Walker.
HBO: How did this project come about?
Lucy Walker (pictured): Marianna and I had been introduced a couple of years before by a mutual friend. We’d communicated by email, but had never met. She called me up one day and said, “I have an idea to make a film
HBO: What was your first impression of the idea?
LW: I get a lot of people calling me up and asking, “Can you make a film about this? Can you make a film about me?” Usually what I say, which is really true, is that I’m too busy and I’m so sorry. But when Marianna explained the idea for the film she imagined, I was very moved. Her goal was to raise awareness and get people to talk about Huntington’s disease. When I realized how tough life is for people who have Huntington’s in their family, I really felt like I wanted to help. It also seemed that having a camera around could give Marianna a sense of purpose — the idea that her suffering might be help ease somebody else’s suffering could be something to cling to.
HBO: Why did you choose to focus on Marianna before she knows her fate, as opposed to after?
LW: We wanted to capture what changes when you learn what comes next. The thing that people forget to document is the beginning, and we had a chance to get the beginning. This is why Marianna and I figured out we would shoot the dinner scene with her friends.
HBO: There’s a scene where two of Marianna’s friends read about the disease without her present. Why include that?
LW: It is a film about Marianna’s friends absorbing the news as well, so that scene shows how other people are trying to get their heads around things. They also Google the disease; I think that’s a typical response these days. It helped elucidate what the stakes are.
HBO: The footage of people suffering from Huntington’s disease is so disturbing and powerful. How did you curate that selection?
LW: The disease is hard to imagine; it’s very specific and hard to describe. That footage shows what the disease is and what’s at stake. I think that the tone in Marianna’s voice is very telling. But we didn’t want to drag it out. I don’t believe in agony for the sake of it. I always wanted to make sure that it was never gratuitous.
HBO: Do you have a favorite verse or line from Bob Dylan’s poem?
LW: The whole thing is moving. The title of the film comes from the poem:
“And the lion’s mouth opens and yer staring at his teeth And his jaws start closin with you underneath”
That credibly pulls at the feeling of something that’s very scary.
HBO: What do you hope viewers take away from this film?
LW: The main thing is that we are trying to get the word out about Huntington’s disease. It’s a disease you want people to know about. And I hope they enjoy the movie and get to know Marianna. She is amazing. I feel real joy just to watch her in action.
In Conclusion: It is quite brave what Marianna Palka has done here. She has opened up and chronicled that moment that will define her for the rest of her life and named that which will cause her eventual demise. It is quite simple yet quite stirring. The intimate film debuted MONDAY, JUNE 1 at 9:00pm as Huntington’s Disease Awareness Month came to a close. Other HBO playdates: 06.04 at 11:30am & 5:00pm; 06.06 at 11:30am; 06.08 at 2:30pm and 06.14 at 3:45pm.
Next Week: THE OUT LIST has an encore presentation on 06.08 beginning at 7:00pm which looks at the struggles and triumphs of being “out” in America via interviews with high profile members of society. BANKSY DOES NEW YORK repeats on 06.15 beginning at 5:00pm. The next premiere is not until 06.22. with REQUIEM FOR THE DEAD.