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Leon and Moira Pericles. Photo: Darren McCagh

Storm in a Teacup: behind the documentary

I’m a TV producer and director and somehow, I always knew I would make a film about my dad, the charismatic Western Australian artist Leon Pericles. But I never anticipated that the real star of the film would be my mum, Moira.

And I have to be honest: it’s bittersweet.

Ten years ago when Mum was just 59 years old, she started to show signs of acute anxiety and stress. She believed she was losing her memory and following in the footsteps of her own mother, who was in a home with Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, Mum was right.

People with dementia are the bravest of the brave. Grandma and Mum were both so stoic as they faced their fears.

And in the face of that bravery, I decided to bring a film crew into the picture.

The result is Storm in a Teacup, the documentary I’ve directed. It’s on the ABC on Tuesday September 17 at 9.30pm (and then on iview), during Dementia Australia’s Dementia Action Week. I hope our story will shine a light on what life is like when you are living and caring for a person with dementia.

In many ways the documentary is an homage to Mum, acknowledging her life’s work – as the manager of Dad’s art business, in the shadows, supporting him.

Leon and Moira Pericles at Leon’s art retrospective, with Nia behind them. Photo: Sabine Albers

Mum had always joked with us about ending her life if she ever got “what Grandma has”. She would say it in jest, but it spoke to that deep-seated fear about ending up like her own mother, who spent more than 20 years in a home.

As Mum faced her fears watching her own mother, I’m now watching Mum’s decline and grappling with my own fears. As history repeats itself, I recognise that my family isn’t the only one in this position.

Despite dementia being the number one cause of death of women in Australia, there’s still so much confusion in the community, and by telling our family story I hope to open up discussions about some of the important issues we face with the rise in dementia globally.

Euthanasia and assisted dying has been a big topic for our family and it’s touched on in the film. For about two years, Mum would ask me gently on the phone (or in person) about helping her end her life. Hearing the fear in her voice, I promised I would help. Of course this was a lie, because currently there’s no law in Australia that recognises an advanced care directive of this nature. I was able to capture one of these spontaneous and intimate moments where mum expressed a desire to end her life. I recorded it on my phone and it’s in the film. It’s an important conversation for the community to have regarding voluntary assisted dying. I do wonder if there will ever be a plan to protect the dying wishes of people with dementia. It feels like there is a long way to go.

With Dad’s big exhibition opening forming the narrative backbone of Storm in a Teacup, filming was quite stressful, but – mostly thanks to Mum – also really fun. Mum is in a happy bubble now and very playful. She would flirt with the cameraman and soundman at any opportunity, having a chat and cuddle with them. Traditionally in observational documentary (as this film is), subjects are briefed to not look at the camera. I quickly realised that with mum, because of her short-term memory loss, this direction was never going to stick. She engaged constantly with the lens (because in her mind, she was engaging with the cameraman) and the result is simply gorgeous.

Photo: David Dare Parker

Mum has always loved a song and a dance and a silly fart joke, but now more than ever. She made the crew laugh all the time. Going through something as tough as losing your memory is seriously confronting emotionally and having mum on antidepressants really helped her, and the family.

Having directed and produced other people’s stories on shows like Bondi Rescue and Getaway for most of my 20 year career in television, I wasn’t sure how making a film about my own family would go. Dad was under pressure to publish a new book and gather more than 500 artworks together for the opening, so he was stressed. I was stressed too, because I was trying to make this film and also help him as much as possible. Thankfully there weren’t too many blow-ups. In many ways it was cathartic, because it forced us to talk about stuff we had tried hard to avoid. Dad was remarkably open during a period when he had so much on.

When it came to finding a name for the film, I thought about Dad and how he’s constantly surrounded by a whirlwind of drama. He’s always in his own little ‘Storm in a Teacup’, and mum confirms this in the film. ‘Storm in a Teacup’ is also the title of an etching Dad produced in 1986 (which you see in the film) and it’s a work I have always loved.

I know that every case of dementia is unique and that our story is just that: our story. We are working closely with the Australian Alzheimer’s Research Foundation and Dementia Australia, both of which are doing brilliant work to raise awareness of key issues. I hope this film will really engage people to learn more about the disease, to understand that people with dementia are important people with feelings and opinions, who will often come out of their shell if you engage with them in a positive way.

Mum often gets the last word in the film, and I love that.

Nia Pericles is the writer, director and narrator of Storm in a Teacup, and development executive with Artemis Media.

Storm in a Teacup is on the ABC + iview on Tuesday 17 September at 9.30pm.

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