The Mystery of Memory

SENIOR COPYWRITER AND FILM DIRECTOR. I help company owners humanise their brands by telling authentic, immersive stories that inspire, entertain and educate us.

Nicholas Penrake: Towards the end of March 2022, my daughter Saina came across a Tik Tok competition inviting anyone with a camera or smart phone to enter a video under 3 minutes in duration. What's the brief? I asked. There didn't seem to be one. Anything we wanted more or less (within reason, I supposed). The deadline was April 5th, so we didn’t have much time to come up with an idea and execute. Saina was keen to write something that dealt with, or alluded to, her grandparents’ lives, made more difficult this year by their grandfather’s challenges with memory and coordination.

Saina, her sister Shiona and I gathered in the living room to brainstorm some ideas. I liked their subject matter, as there were plenty emotions to mine from it, but it was going to be difficult to include my dad in the picture, as he’s not only a non-actor, even on a good day his memory is a fagile thing.

I was also very mindful of not wanting to offend either of my parents, especially my mum, as this subject is deeply personal and the last thing any of us wanted was to come across as exploitative, flippant or glib about a subject as sensitive as dementia, or 'mixed dementia' as a doctor recently described my dad's condition.

Inspiration for the film

I’d been deeply affected by something Saina had related to me relating back to a recent visit to her grandparents’ house, travelling on her own. At one point her grandpa had told her that his father had driven me down to Sussex University, where I was to start a BA in English Literature and film. Her grandma had to remind him that he was misremembering: he was in fact the one who’d done the driving.

Anyone with dementia or Alzheimer’s will show increased signs of muddling names and places, we are all familiar with this from real life and movies. In this case, my dad had experienced some kind of dissociative recollection that cast him as an observer of someone else carrying out an action that he had carried out. It was even more extraordinary to my mind given that his father had been dead 10 years by the time I was ready to go to university. Even as these things were kindly pointed out to him, for some minutes he remained  quite adamant he didn’t have a car at that time.

It was this recent example of confusion in my dad's mind as to who was doing what and when that formed the basis of an idea for a little film. So, in the film you’ll see my dad, who has never acted in his life, looking out the window to the garden. He sees his son digging at a flower bed. And yet he also sees himself out there. He even imagines he’s wearing his gardening jacket and gloves, although he hasn't been outside gardening for several weeks.

It’s only when his son returns to the house, having found a missing glove, that we realise he has confused reality with a memory. What you see on the screen is not ‘bad acting’, it is in fact a very real portrait of a man of 92 who often struggles to find his words.

On the fly

Preparation? We had no time to call my regular crew, and if we wanted to finish the vertical version in time for the Tik Tok competition, we had to make it work with what we had, essentially radio mics and a Canon 5D. No rehearsals, either. Before my dad got too tired, we shot two versions: the one you see here and the vertical version. We could have sat around thinking, this is going to be impossible, but instead we just went out there and did it. So often the best thing to do in life.

As Saina wasn't able to join us for the shoot, Shiona and I passed to her the job of editing, finding some music to fit, mixing and grading.

Children, animals and...

There's a familiar adage in the film world that you want to avoid working with children and animals if at all posssible, especially on a tight budget. You could add to that list: non-actors with 'mixed dementia'. And yet, in spite of numerous takes my dad had to do for his first line, we somehow made it work, and without anyone getting prickly in the process.

I thought it was very admirable that my dad even agreed to be in the film. He never once gave the impression that he suspected us filmmakers of exploiting his situation or that he resented being asked to act out a scenario that could so easily have added to his daily frustrations. Luckily, he gave it his best, and although clearly he was struggling with his stamina at times, he never once complained. I got the feeling that above all he was glad to be useful. He had a task to do, and he was going to prove to himself he could still do it. I like to think the interaction he had with me and his grandchildren gave him back some of his pride, even if, paradoxically, the film was on the face of it a story revealing of his frailties.

It's just how things are

My mum, who plays herself in the film, has been clear she wants to be transparent with people as to her husband's condition. Not to make light of it, not to despair, either, just accept it and make the best of life as it is now, in spite of the challenges they face alone and together.

The Mystery of Memory is a nuanced and subtle piece that illustrates in under 2 minutes just one aspect of what goes on in the mind of someone who is becoming increasingly prone to episodes of confusion. It shows that dementia is so much more than 'forgetting things'. When parts of the brain begin to atrophy, you can't remember how long you've been living in your own home, you can't remember who's living with you. You wonder where the furniture came from. You not only struggle to find the right word, you hear yourself slurring sometimes. Dementia also causes problems with coordination and balance. So you fall in the bathroom and cut your arm open on the edge of the bath. Buttons and zips become tedious puzzles. You spend 5 minutes putting your head through the sleeve of your jumper... The night before we filmed, my dad said to me, with a bemused laugh as we were sitting down to eat dinner, "Oh, you know, I just get so tired of being this way. I feel so done in."

The film is also as much about the way in which the older man's wife gently helps to bring him back to reality without ever resorting to sarcasm, judgment or even letting go a sigh of frustration. It is but one brief glimpse of a family holding it together as shadows encroach on the light, but we hope it touches you all the same.

Vertical version

Cast & Crew

Ralph Meacock        as himself
June Meacock          as herself
Nicholas Penrake    as himself

Writers                      Nicholas Penrake and Shiona Penrake
Directors                   Nicholas Penrake and Shiona Penrake
Camera & Sound     Shiona Penrake
Editor                        Saina Penrake
Mix & Grade             Saina Penrake