There’s something deeply troubling about the short documentary, The Lion’s Mouth Opens, which is premiering on HBO tonight and airing during the week. I am not sure if what is digging at me is intentional on director Lucy Walker’s part, but, ultimately, I think the responsibility belongs to the film’s subject, Marianna Palka.
Let me explain.
The Lion’s Mouth Opens is about Palka’s process of discovering if she has Huntington’s Disease. Huntington’s is an incurable degenerative disorder and it is passed down genetically, so Palka has a 50% chance of having it. Originally from Scotland, Palka has made a life in Los Angeles (actor friends Jason Ritter and Bryce Dallas Howard appear in the film). She approached Walker to document her choice to find out if she carried the genes for Huntington’s at age 32. She could have gone through her life without knowing until she showed symptoms (if she had it) but this was the choice she made. And she wanted it to be documented.
The film is moving and powerful as many of the best documentaries can be when they portray a person confronting trauma or facing their demons. But I also found it disturbing because of where it puts me as the doc-watcher. The film is structured as a lead-up to the big reveal: will she have Huntington’s or not? And so, when I began watching, I couldn’t help but begin thinking, well, if she has it, then it’s going to be one kind of movie (tragic, melancholy). If she doesn’t have it, it’s a very different movie (happy, sense of relief).
Whenever we enter into a movie theater (or turn on the tube, click on a device, etc.), we are going into a film with some sort of anticipation. That’s why people watch The Fault in our Stars, looking forward to a good cry, or why audiences get amped to be scared when watching Saw. The same applies to documentaries. Audiences rush to see Michael Moore films to rage against “the man,” or they watch a doc about a beloved musical legend with the hope of being moved and inspired.
I’m grossly oversimplifying here, but my point is that going into a film without some emotional scaffolding in place is difficult. I began watching The Lion’s Mouth Opens with the hope, as a person, that Palka didn’t have Huntington’s. But as a movie-watcher, one who wants to see a dramatic situation escalate, I couldn’t help feeling like the film wouldn’t justify its existence, or premise, if Palka didn’t have it.
The schism within me — between being a person with a heart and the popcorn-popping movie-watcher, hardwired for a strong climax — is what I find so troubling. That’s the slippery slope that Palka pushes us on by turning this moment in her life into a narrative device for our viewing.
Perhaps this isn’t a criticism at all. It may be one of the film’s strengths. I found the documentary revelatory in that it told me more about myself. And, anyway, the eventual ending of the film defies expectations in powerful ways.
But what sticks with me most is that by making this film exist, Palka has placed me, and possibly you, in an awkward position. It’s not comfortable. But neither is she.
Updated at 1 PM ET