Ticketyboo Director Renée Brack Talks About Adjusting Relationships with Dementia and More in This Interview

Renée Brack built a career interviewing everyone from Oscar-winners and scientists to ordinary people and Chopper Read. Now, she has transitioned from putting the spotlight on other people to putting the spotlight on herself and her father in the excellent documentary Ticketyboo: A Secret in Plain Sight. This story is a deeply personal one, with Renée exploring the connection she had with her father who lived with Alzheimer’s, and coming to the realisation that it wasn’t the disease that destroyed her relationship with him, but possibly herself.

In this deeply introspective and invitational film, Renée engages in discussions with industry leading figures and activists such as Dr James McLoughlin, Tim England, Dr Nicole Kochan, Jane Seaholme, and more, to explore our relationship with dementia and Alzheimer’s, ultimately giving the tools to families around the world to best live with and support those they love who live with this disease.

Andrew caught up with Renée before the films launch screening at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival on Saturday July 30th to talk about her transition to becoming a filmmaker, what the impact campaign for Ticketyboo will look like, and also discussing an audience reaction to the film. This is a documentary that will no doubt provoke a wealth of discussion, so once you have seen the film, make sure to visit the Ticketyboo website for further information.

I’ve known you as an interviewer for so long, getting to watch you for years and years and enjoying your great in-depth questions. But I didn’t know that you did lecturing at SAE Creative Media Institute. That’s really cool. How did you get into being a film lecturer?

Renée Brack: It is an interesting story that’s bigger than me. I was a print journalist and a writer since I was three years old and I never thought about television or being on screen. But TV came to me in 1991. And so then one job led to another job led to another job. And then in about 2012 I think I was the last person to figure out that maybe TV was done with me and I realised that maybe I was done with it when an executive had asked me in my film interviews if I could use the word “film” less and “movie” more for the audience. And because I was delving more into the scholarly and academic analysis of film, I kind of realised that TV was done with me because they wanted stuff that was a lot more lighter and fluffier and I was heading down a more in depth path.

And then a great person that I’d crossed paths with when I was learning to edit with Final Cut Pro said to me, “I think you’d be great at delivering lectures about critical film analysis. So I started in about 2015 or 16 doing a two-hour class a week. And then it grew and grew and grew and now I’m on about 30 hours a week, delivering workshops that go over 13 weeks where I nurture emerging filmmakers from concept to pre-production, production, post and festival release for short film web series and short documentary.

I didn’t have kids. But one of the things that I discovered was the need to nurture — I don’t know if it’s the female aspect of me — was awoken. So I’ve not had to deal with nappies and tortured teenagers as such, and I get to share and pass on knowledge and help nurture the next wave of emerging filmmakers. So it’s very rewarding.

And now you’re a filmmaker yourself. When did the Ticketyboo journey start?

RB: Well, my father was diagnosed suddenly after an episode in 2006, and I was completely shocked. I’d never even thought about Alzheimer’s or dementia, I thought he was struggling with retirement from work. He’d always been a bit of a tortured artist and so I just thought it was that. After diagnosis, it was already very advanced, and I was completely ignorant. And then he died very suddenly as soon as he went into the nursing home, and I liken it to — it was like a cut flower put in a vase with no water. And when he died in 2011, I started going through the natural grieving process, but by 2014 I was getting worse and I was starting to feel really regretful about wasted time and my ignorance, and I was angry that Alzheimer’s had destroyed my relationship with my dad in his older age. And so I went to Documentary Australia Foundation with a bit of an idea in 2017.

I had these two actions. And the second one was to write his epitaph but he was cremated and so I don’t have a gravestone. The counselor had suggested, “Well, what was his favorite colour?” And I said blue. And she said “Why don’t you make a living memorial?’ And then it was coincidental that forget-me-nots are blue. And so I built that, wrote the epitaph, and then I thought, “That make a nice little documentary, I should do this and share his art with the world.” And then a couple of wonderful producers came on board and said, “Why don’t we make this even bigger?”

I was looking for a second act, because as the writer-director, I realised I had a beginning and an end, but I didn’t have a middle. And Kristina Foster, one of the producers, said, “How do you feel about getting tested?” And I thought, “Wow, there’s a lot of stigma around testing and people admitting that they have it,” because they get treated differently. It was then I had this huge epiphany that it wasn’t Alzheimer’s that destroyed my later relationship with my dad, it was me and my own fear and ignorance of the disease. And if I wanted to maybe address that first, tackling the fear of whether it could be in my future could be a good cathartic thing for me.

It might then be bigger than me and maybe we can create an impact film where other people might see it and, and treat people with dementia a little better, learn from my mistakes. And in the film, I learn in real time what I got wrong and then what other people and myself could do in future.

That’s what I really liked about it. Obviously it’s an impact film, but it’s something that I’ve learned from myself. My grandfather has got dementia. The relationship that I’ve got with him is very different. I was very close with him, we went to his home country back in 2006, he came from Scotland and so we spent a whole month there. I got to see his family and learn about his growing up. I had this real bond with him.

He’s now in a care facility. And when he started to show signs of dementia — I look very similar to my dad, so he would talk to me like I was my dad, and I didn’t know how to deal with that. And I still don’t know how to deal with that. And then watching this, I realised the problem is not with him, it is with me, and I’ve got to adjust the situation. So I’m glad that I got to see the film while he’s still around because I can adjust my relationship with him. Thank you very much for that.

RB: That’s wonderful. It’s not just about raising awareness, but your response is so what I hoped would happen when people see it. So thank you for sharing it.

It’s a disease which people can get angry about because we’re losing the person that we love and the person we know so dearly. It’s easy to misplace that anger. But it was really quite comforting to see you go through that journey of discovery throughout the film. As an interviewer, it’s wonderful having somebody else be the focus. But here you’re putting that focus on yourself. How did you feel about that process?

RB: We did a lot of fundraising to get the money together just as lockdown started in 2020. And I’m one of those optimists that’s borderline delusional. So I thought, “Oh, this could be a good thing because you know, we save all this time traveling.” Doing pitch meetings over 20 minutes each via Zoom meant we could see a lot more people and pitch to a lot more people. So it actually became a little bit easier, I think, because of Zoom to be able to raise the funds. And then we shot during the lockdown and in Victoria that was in the strictest lockdown towards the end of 2020, and then we did post in 2021.

You’re among the handful of people outside of the team who’s seen the whole film. So I live by myself and I’ve been working on this throughout the lockdowns. And so the feelings that were coming up were “This is a terrible film. I’ve wasted seven years of my life. Everything I’ve tried to make it I don’t think it is because I was too close to it.” And then I started thinking “People are going to hate me. They’re going to troll me because I was a bad daughter.”

And then when some of the experts that are interviewed like the wonderful Tim England who runs a small business called Dementia Champion — he said, “I don’t think that’s going to happen.” And I went, “You don’t know what people are going to be like out there. I think that I could get quite severely trolled.” And so those are the fears that were coming up for me.

Because I’ve interviewed people, I’ve been to the Middle East, I’ve been in difficult situations with pirates in the South China Seas for a documentary. And the whole thought of putting out my shame and my regret and admitting that for someone who’s very inclusive, I’d been excluding him was very confronting. Because I was really showing the hole in my soul and publicly admitting that I was really crap at dealing with dementia.

But that’s very comforting for people like myself, and I’m sure that when people see it on a wider audience, there are going to be so many people who go, “Yes, this is what I’ve done.” And they’ve gone through the same feelings of that guilt, that frustration, that feeling of “I’m a horrible person because of what I’ve done.” That’s kind of why I love the title so much. This is a phrase that your dad would say, but it’s a such an Australian phrase as well. “It’s ticketyboo. She’ll be right.” There was a problem there, but it’s going be okay. And the best way of dealing with it is sticking it out in the open and talking about it, which is wonderful. Was there a moment for you when you realised that it needed to be called Ticketyboo?

RB: Yes, because titles are kind of like names for children, pets. [When you’re] writing books, you can have a working title, knowing that if you just leave it, the real title will come to you. And I’d initially wanted to call it The Dearly Demented, but some very knowledgeable people in academia went “Oh, no, no. Don’t call it that. That’s our verging on being insulting and offensive.” And I went, “Oh, okay.”

Because that [had] been inspired by a Simpsons episode when Bart Simpson did a cartoon called Demented Dad. And so I thought it was a nice tie-in because dad liked The Simpsons, and I love them too. And then I was having a chat with my brother who had commented that whenever Dad would say, “I’m ticketyboo,” it’d bring a smile to his face. And I realised that from 1996 when Dad was starting to get repetitive and I’d call up on the phone or I’d go to visit my parents’ house and I’d say, “How are you, Dad?” he’d say, “I’m ticketyboo, I’m ticketyboo.” And I’d be thinking, “Yeah, I heard you the first time.”

I think that might hark back to when his own father had been overseas fighting in World War Two in Europe and he came back home to Sydney, and was hit by a car and killed when Dad was only six. So I thought, “Oh, maybe because of the Alzheimer’s, it’s taking Dad back to that time. And he remembers something from his own conversations with his own dad.” But that’s just a theory that I have. And so I went, “I should call the film this.” And then without giving the end away, that became also an inspiration for how to end the film.

What’s the journey like discovering all those people who could talk so intimately and deeply about dementia from a caring perspective and from an informed perspective?

RB: Going into nursing homes, I went into one in Casino, and there was another key one in Victoria. I hadn’t been back since the last time I saw my dad. So it was a little bracing and I was a little scared. But then in Victoria, I met this incredible woman called Jill Heinz. And she had been caring for the elderly for 50 years and as a nurse. So she’d seen the whole change from when care facilities for people with dementia were more like hospital wards than they were residential homes. And she is so connected and understanding of how to spend time with people who have an Alzheimer’s diagnosis or with some form of advanced dementia.

So I learned a lot from her and she’s so dry-humoured and hilarious. I would be using my interview skills which are ingrained in me to ask people questions about their past which creates more confusion because their brains might time-travel very spontaneously, and I had to give up and let go of trying to guide the conversation, because it was frustrating for both of us.

She taught me one of the key things was being in the moment with them and letting the conversation go. And I only really had this a couple of times with dad, so I didn’t know that there were some good moments to be had. I just didn’t make the most of them while he was alive. Because when he would go back in time to one of the happiest times in his life, it was in the 1950s when he was a rocker. Now, it was my understanding that mum was the greatest love and his only love — which maybe that’s what parents want their kids to think, I don’t know. But that’s what I thought. And then I found out there was another woman who was his first great love, and it was a very, very torrid, hot and heavy affair. And because I was quite grown up by then, it didn’t bother me to hear this story.

I realised old photos will never give me the opportunity to know dad at this time of his life like Alzheimer’s is giving me because he’s remembering all of this in vivid detail. And he had the energy in the storytelling like he was that age again. So that’s what I’m hoping people can have as well with people that they love who’ve got dementia, and not get as frustrated as I used to, sometimes demanding that he come back into the conversation we were having, instead of going with him, like in Dr Who’s TARDIS to the time that he was remembering.

It’s kind of like the antithesis of living in the moment. We have this quite profound opportunity to experience and get to know somebody from a period of time that we weren’t around or we didn’t know them as well. And that is quite a beautiful thing. That’s one of the things which I really appreciate: being able to look at something that society perceives as being a devastating or cruel thing and in a lot of ways still is, but it’s also an opportunity. It makes you realise, “All right, I’ve been doing things a little bit wrong.”

RB: Yeah, because we have so little control. And it’s frustrating for everybody when we try and keep control of Alzheimer’s in our loved one. Once people can accept “I can’t fix this. Science can’t fix this at the moment. But what I can do is have a shift inside me to have a better relationship with dementia, and hence with the person that I love who’s in these shifting realities.”

Obviously there’s been a whole bunch of political action and Royal Commissions and things like that associated with the aged care sector. I understand that there’s an impact campaign for the film, too. Could you possibly talk about that and the impact that it might have on those kinds of political campaigns?

RB: Oh, at this stage, it’s at concept. A testing phase is yet to happen. I very much want to get into the whole data before using the film as a tool to measure the change in people’s understanding, compassion, and potential interaction with dementia. So when I first went to Documentary Australia foundation with my little idea that grew and grew and grew, I started doing all their workshops, and I ended up doing all the relevant workshops about impact.

Because it’s one thing to make a film and it be, I don’t know, serving of people’s careers in some ways. But it’s a better thing to give back to the community with a social impact campaign, and then also it becomes easier to raise funds because you’re not doing them for selfish reasons, you’re doing them for the community.

The impact campaign has an initiative that we’re going to develop called Dem Safe. There’s a few layers to it but this is the key one — I noticed around Sydney something that worked very well was the pink triangle that indicated a safe space for LGBTQI people at establishments. And because dad was a wanderer, he used to wander to cliffs, wander to the ocean. The first time he was diagnosed, he vanished for 16 hours, and walked from Manly in Sydney up to Barranjoey Lighthouse and just stopped at the cliff. I thought, “Oh, I wonder if we could develop something around maybe the icon or motif of the lighthouse, and go into shopping centres and see if we can’t trial not so much a creche system like they have for kids.”

But when carers go out, sometimes it can be frustrating when you can’t leave someone somewhere for five minutes while you use the restroom that may not be unisex and things like that. So we want to then trial this initiative called Dem Safe so that people in the community can go to the shopping centre and there’s a cafe or somewhere where a person can be seated and be safe while someone has to nick around and do something. That’s the key element of the social impact campaign.

So I’m hoping the film will gain an audience in festivals and then on screens in Australia and around the world so that we can have some impact on a grassroots level. Not to make people feel guilty about how they’re dealing with it, but to maybe give them a few frames of reference where they can go, “Oh, you know what, I could do that.”

But being a scholar myself — I’ve just had a PhD proposal accepted by a university — [it’d be really good] to work up to a stronger policy level particularly in Australia, to be able to do the surveys, pre-screening and post-screening, so that we can have measurable data of how people feel less afraid of dementia.

That data I think will be valuable because Dementia Australia runs surveys that are quite valuable every year. And a stat in a 2017 survey really stuck out to me. One in two people surveyed said they didn’t know how to talk to someone with dementia, and wished they knew more. And I thought that’s the stuff we need to impact. And maybe then this could impact policy level two with government.

We’ve got Kate Swaffer in the film, she’s living with a diagnosis, Phil Hazel is living with a diagnosis, and he’s got one of Australia’s only dementia-trained assistance dogs. They need a seat at the table at policy level. I don’t want to paraphrase Kate, but it may have been her who pointed out that you wouldn’t have a committee to deal with an Indigenous matter and not have Indigenous people at the table. The same should be for people living with a dementia diagnosis. And that’s how far I would love to be able to impact policy.

That’s exciting. I was going to ask if you’re going to make more films, but that sounds like a full-time job.

RB: I’ve got more films in me. I’ve always been quite fascinated with the topic of homelessness and how it happens, why it happens, what we can do about it, because it’s a deep-seated fear of mine. So there are more films in me but at the moment Ticketyboo has become my life’s work, because the long tail of the impact campaign is yet to unfold.

The last question which I love to ask people and for you who as somebody who loves film and now is a filmmaker is: what does it mean for you to be an Australian filmmaker?

RB: Gosh, it is a strange thing, because it is an art form but it’s also highly technical. It’s a lot of hard work where the petrol that drives it is your own passion. And you’ve got to generate that, replenish it, and you burn through it as well. (laughs) So to even be considered or called a filmmaker is — I’ve made a lot of short films too, but I don’t know, it’s a funny thing. I don’t really quite know how to answer it. Because on this film, too, I was writer, director, researcher, co-producer, social impact producer. I think that’s six roles. And we’ve just started talking to people like yourself in the media about it. So I don’t know what I am at the moment. I feel like a jill of all trades. It’s still surreal that people are actually starting to see it.

Maybe once the debut screening at Documentary Film Festival goes ahead, it’ll start to sink in. Are you going to be doing a Q&A or anything like that afterwards?

RB: Yes. And we’ve got some people that are in the film who will be there. And we’re also allowing audience question time of course. It’s going to be a great thing to have this panel of experts and people who are in the film together, because normally they’d be at conferences [that] cost an arm and a leg to attend. So it’ll be great for that, but also I’m very keen to do what I call the three Rs. And that’s regional, rural, and remote areas around Australia. And SAE has kindly offered to [think about] how do we get this over into the SAE campuses for private screenings? There’s an SAE campus in Perth.

Yes, I love it. It’s a great campus.

RB: And the other thing that I’ve just been putting the finishing touches on is an e-book called Ticketyboo: An Illustrated Story Of How To Fall In Love With Dementia. It’s got some of the extra stuff that isn’t in the film with a little anecdote and my dad’s artworks and how they changed with Alzheimer’s, and family photos and what I got wrong and some tips for people. I’ve made it accessible enough for teenagers to read. If you sat down in one go, it’d probably take you 20 minutes to 30 minutes to read the whole thing. I’ll be releasing that, I hope, before the end of July.

I’m excited to hear what you do with your PhD as well. Is it rude to ask what it will be on?

RB: No, I have no sacred cows. There’s no question you can’t ask. I don’t feel it’s intrusive whatsoever. Ticketyboo is going to be the case study for it, but the research question that I’m developing is around looking at factual and fictional films and new avenues and pathways for funding outside of the traditional funding pathways for film by tying impact into it.

Another short film that was an Oscar either winner or nominated — it’s so beautiful — it’s called The Silent Child. It’s a 20-minute film made in the UK about a little deaf girl and the nanny who’s teaching her sign language who gets sacked by the mother. And you don’t know you’re even watching an impact film until the very end when a stat comes up saying X amount of deaf children need sign language in UK schools, because this doesn’t make them different, it helps them assimilate, and other kids can learn. And you just realise that that would have been a great way to raise funds for a fictional film about a relevant topic. Because you’re not just making a film to entertain, you’re drawing factual and documentary elements into a drama.

I drew on drama to create a narrative structure for Ticketyboo. So I want to explore new funding pathways for filmmakers, and hopefully have a chapter on a unit or a module I could develop for universities, for students coming through with a social conscience who want to also be filmmakers, who could plug into that. So that’s it. Thank you for letting me pitch it to you. (laughs)

I think that is really great. Because it just means that hopefully, if we’ve got enough of these films, enough of these successful impact campaigns, we’ll have enough positive change in society as a whole.

RB: There is also a flipside to consider. And I know this happens sometimes. And I was warned about it. There is also the risk of whitewashing, because you can have these organisations who have X amount of dollars they can put into research or into marketing for themselves. And I think it’s still important for filmmakers to consider ethical questions. I’ve worked with people that say, “Take money from wherever you can get it.” And I understand that and I can see the value in that. But also too I’ve had great warnings from people that say, “Don’t just take money from anywhere, Renée, because it could stain or colour the impact that you might be trying to propose and to effect.”

Doing post-grad work helps you not just push your own positive barrow but be able to weigh up the pros and cons of everything and be a little bit more pragmatic about where the funds are coming from. I’d love to do a chapter in their PhD just on the ethical concerns about impact funding and where the money comes from.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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