Full Frame ’14: The lion’s share of short form

As the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival kicks off tomorrow in North Carolina, Oscar-nominee Lucy Walker (pictured) - who has two doc shorts at the festival and is curating this year's thematic program - tells realscreen why big things can come in small packages.
April 2, 2014

Despite only being 15 minutes long, Lucy Walker’s doc The Lion’s Mouth Opens was one of the most talked-about films at this year’s Sundance festival. Here, the two-time Oscar-nominee (pictured) tells realscreen why big things can come in small packages.

With the world premiere of The Lion’s Mouth Opens at January’s Sundance Film Festival, director Lucy Walker scored two notable coups.

Firstly, the launch earned her the rare distinction of having had five films premiere at the Utah festival in five years, with Lion’s Mouth following on the heels of Waste Land and Countdown to Zero (both in 2010), The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (2012) and The Crash Reel (2013).

But perhaps more notably, her latest work managed to become one of the most discussed and buzzed-about films to play in Park City this year – despite the fact that it is only 15 minutes long.

The short doc garnered major news coverage from the likes of ABC News and the Los Angeles Times, and was described by Filmmaker magazine as being “the most emotionally devastating film” to play at the fest, in spite of its length. Rarely has a short made such an impact.

The documentary follows LA-based actor Marianna Palka, whose father suffers from Huntington’s Disease, a crippling neurodegenerative disorder that debilitates both the mind and body, and has no known cure. Offspring have a 50-50 chance of inheriting the disease from a parent.

The film unfolds in two simple acts, with the first slowly introducing the audience to Palka and her friends, and building tension ahead of a visit to her doctor, who hands her an envelope revealing whether or not she too carries the Huntington’s gene. The second act follows her and her friends’ reactions to the news.

Palka and Walker share mutual friends, but despite both being Sundance regulars, had failed to run into each other over several years of coming to Park City.

“She rang me up out of the blue one day and said, ‘I have a feeling I’m supposed to call you,’” Walker tells realscreen. “She said, ‘I wanted to reach out because you are a filmmaker that I love and I’m going through this thing, which I think could be a documentary.’”

When first told of Palka’s potential diagnosis, Walker admits she was unfamiliar with Huntington’s Disease. “I went home and Googled it, and I cried for about three days,” she recalls, adding, “This is a very harrowing disease.”

marianna palka (left) and lucy walker at sundance 2014. photograph by adam benzine

Actor Marianna Palka (left) and director Lucy Walker (right) at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (Photo: Adam Benzine)

Walker decided to make a doc immediately, with no funding, and to film it “in the most bare-bones way” possible, with just herself acting as sound recordist, and Crash Reel cinematographer Nick Higgins on camera.

“I wanted to film before she got her result,” Walker explains. “I said, ‘We shouldn’t just film you after you get the result – you’ll never have this moment again where you don’t know – so we should film that moment, and we’ll figure out what to do before you get the result and how to film it.

“I wanted first of all to make it as a gift for people with Huntington’s Disease, and second of all as a gift to Marianna, because she was going through such a difficult time,” the British director adds.

“I know as a filmmaker that documentaries can be very helpful and can give purpose when you’re suffering horribly; the idea that your pain somehow can benefit somebody, even if it’s not you, is a tremendously consoling thought.”

Following last year’s feature doc The Crash Reel – which won Walker a SXSW audience prize and a DGA nomination, among its many plaudits – The Lion’s Mouth Opens is one of three shorts to be recently produced by the filmmaker.

In December, the director released Daredevil on a Snowmobile, a five-and-a-half-minute-long film about the death of X Games star Caleb Moore, for the New York Times‘ Op-Doc series. And at SXSW in March, she premiered David Hockney IN THE NOW (in six minutes), a short film focusing on the British artist.

Both Lion’s Mouth and Hockney will play at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which kicks off tomorrow (April 3) and runs until April 6 in North Carolina. The two-time Oscar-nominee has also been tapped to curate the festival’s annual thematic program, which will this year focus on the role of the subject in documentary film.

For all of her films, both short and long, Walker says she seeks out the resilience of the human spirit, whether via the garbage dump-dwellers living in abject poverty in Waste Land, the tsunami survivors featured in Cherry Blossom, or the recovering snowboarder at the heart of The Crash Reel.

“My films are very much about showing people in emotional circumstances, digging deep and finding the kind of grace that you can only dream of,” she offers, “truly special people.”

Beyond her short form work, the director is also penning a screenplay for Film4 on the life of the late French intellectual Simone de Beauvoir, and says she harbors ambition for further narrative work.

“I love narrative films and I think it would be really wonderful to be able to switch between both of them,” she says. “When you’re making a fiction film you have so much control but you have to work really hard for the authenticity, whereas when you’re making a documentary film, you have all the authenticity you want, but you have to work really hard to have any control over it.”

That said, with the die having been cast by the events of Lion’s Mouth, she is now exploring the possibility of making a longitudinal documentary on Palka, which would follow her and her family over the course of the next decade.

“We’ve been talking about making this the first step in a film project following her and her family for years to come, which I think is a beautiful idea.

“I think I see myself being a sort of conduit for this extraordinary person,” Walker adds, “and this extraordinary story, to be observed by the outside world.”

  • The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival kicks off tomorrow (April 3) in Durham, North Carolina. Check out the full festival line-up here.
  • This article first appeared in the March/April 2014 edition of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
realscreen magazine, march/april 2014
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