Interview: Renée Brack

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Renée Brack. Photo by Tony Mott.

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Interview by Matthew Eeles

My mum died of cancer in 2008. She was 48 years old, and I was 24 at the time.

I could never imagine being asked questions over and over again about my mum. Questions about her life, her illness, and our relationship. So I admire documentary filmmakers like Jane Castle (When the Camera Stopped Rolling) and Renée Brack who are so willing to discuss their personal lives so openly for the sake of their craft and the important messages they’re conveying through it.

In Renée’s case, she’s currently on a press junket for the upcoming release of her new documentary, Ticketyboo – a story about her connection to her father who died with Alzheimer’s disease, and her agonising decision to subject herself to a gruelling range of medical tests to determine if she might one day meet the same fate as her father.

As well as media interviews, Renée will be taking questions from audiences following screenings of the film.

“I think I’m probably going to tear up a fair bit,” Reneé tells me when I ask her how she feels about the whole Q&A process.

“It is very, very weird because I’ve been in media for a long time and I was never really comfortable in front of the camera, but it was a way I could make good money before the bottom fell out of the industry and it got a lot cheaper. But it was always, I believe, my B-list skill being in front of the camera because writing was my A-list skill. And so interviewing people, I really, really enjoy and I think there’s less pressure to be the interviewer than the interviewee.”

As well as being a writer, author, director and producer, Brack is probably best known publicly as the first journalist to interview convicted criminal, gang member and author Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read for television when she was working for Channel 9 in Melbourne.

During the interview, Read drew his revolver, allegedly loaded it with a single bullet, pulled the trigger on himself, then Renée. The interview went viral around the world.

I mention the Chopper Read story because despite this interview being focused mainly on Ticketyboo, I couldn’t resist asking Renée about that famous interview which is now a part of Australian criminal history, and I think it’s worth reflecting on it. You can watch the video of that part of this interview below. 

Ticketyboo screens as part of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival on Saturday, July 30 at 3.20pm at Cinema Nova, Carlton and will be followed by a Q&A panel of some of Australia’s leading dementia experts who will be taking audience questions. Tickets are available here

Renée Brack with a photo of her and her father, Thom Brack. Photo by Tony Mott.

“Finding out that Ticketyboo has more universal relevance beyond people that are living with a dementia diagnosis was really important. Finding out how it’s helping other people has been more healing for me than I ever imagined.”


TicketyBoo
is a tough watch. It’s going to hit close to home for a lot of people. You went through a lot during the making of this film and I really felt for you. I had a note scribbled at the top of my notepad, “Ask Renée how she is.” So Renée, how are you?

Thank you for asking. I have been getting better and I’m not seeing a counselor at the moment because the weird thing that I knew nothing about was when unresolved grief spirals into regret, there comes a lot of self-loathing and what you feel you don’t deserve. And my life started to get smaller and smaller and smaller. I saw less people. I went out socially less, and this was before lockdown. And I got rid of my car so I could walk more, so I was spending a lot more time on my own than I’d ever spent before. And that was a good and bad thing because it made me really dig deep and find out what’s going on in my life. Why can’t I seem to get past or over my father’s death? We were shooting TicketyBoo in lockdown with very restricted crews. And sometimes it was just myself and a videographer in Victoria and then myself and a videographer in Casino, so I was moving some lights and doing audio and wrangling talent in nursing homes and trying to guard the unit base of gear because people with dementia wanted to look at it. And it was quite a few things to do so I was distracted from my guilt and grief.
And then as the edit progressed, I’d have moments of going, “Have I just wasted seven years of my life? Is this just a terrible film or is this going to be good? Is this is going to be better for me that I’ve done it because I’ve resolved my grief?” But I’ve noticed a shift now that people are seeing the movie. One woman said to me recently, “I don’t have dementia in my family, but I have a son with autism and I just found I connect with the guilt and regret sometimes that you were talking about in the film.” And so finding out that it’s got maybe some more universal relevance beyond people that are living with a dementia diagnosis was really important. And now people are saying how much it’s helping them to just reduce fear and stigma around it. Finding out how it’s helping other people has been more healing for me than I ever imagined.

So many people have experienced dementia in their family, but not everyone goes out and makes a documentary about it. Why did you feel it was so important to make a documentary about your journey with your father?
Well, first of all, my dad was a self-taught artist and he showed talent but he didn’t have any training, and I think that’s quite evident in his paintings. I don’t think he’s a world master or anything like that, but he wanted to exhibit, but he was very, very shy and he wouldn’t do it. So he used to drop hints to me and I would be like, “Oh yeah, yeah.” And I didn’t do anything about it. And I thought if I had this exhibition and get his work out there in front of people, and even if I’m the only one who hears any compliments, then I’ll feel like I’ve done something right by him even after his death.
It was going to be just a little film about this art exhibition. And because the change in his style is dramatic from pre dementia when he was doing hyper-realistic oils and then as Alzheimer’s took hold, he shifted from oils to watercolors and it became very impressionist. And then after diagnosis, because in 2006 when he was diagnosed, he was very advanced in the diagnosis by then, and then he had morphed to sketch pads and crayons. And you can see the change is so dramatic.
And also his signature, because he designed his own letter T as a young man,  it was like calligraphy. Then he started to have two Ks at the end of his name instead of a C. And just before he died, he’d put a signature on one of his artworks without the letter O. And I remember looking at it, thinking, when your name’s Tom, it’s like the soul of your name, that all important vowel. And I wondered if he’d felt… I mean, I’m reading a lot into it of course, as a metaphor, but he had lost touch with himself.
So I just wanted to do the art exhibition and then it got bigger and bigger as more people came on board.

So it was the art exhibition that led you to make the documentary?
It was before that, because I was going to make a shorter documentary just about the art exhibition and the living memorial. And as I spoke with the producers and we were talking about, it was like, “It’s not quite enough for a feature and it’s nice, but what does it mean?” And that’s when producer Christina Foster had suggested, “How do you feel about getting tested to see what your future may hold?” And I was like, “Not great.”
And then I had this amazing epiphany where instead of blaming Alzheimer’s for damaging, even destroying my relationship with Dad in his late stages, I realised it was me. It was my fear and ignorance of the disease and avoiding it. And I thought testing and confronting that and that fear would be a great way for me to be very real about what the issue is. And then of course, it brought up the much bigger issue of stigma in society around dementia and why a lot of people won’t get tested because they get treated differently.

Throughout the film, quite a few people are telling you not to get tested for various reasons. How do you feel about getting tested now upon reflection? 
Sometimes I think I’m a bit of an idiot. Because I’m lucky enough to have some associates, friends, colleagues who have great advice and I do respect it so immensely. But I’m also very compelled and willful to do things my own way. And this is, again, a double-edged sword. I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences in life, but I’ve also been incredibly burned because if everybody’s telling me no, I think I want to find out why. And I don’t want to call it bravery, it’s not bravery. It’s a slight immaturity mixed with something that’s a bit cavalier. And I’m still not very aware of the age that I’m at, in my fifties, I still make plans like I’ve got another 50 years ahead of me. So there’s the naivety there that I’m reluctant to give up.

Would you say that your results have changed your attitude towards your future?
A lot of the advice from the experts, medical and social experts, around dementia is the news and the advice that none of us really want to hear because it’s easy, but it sounds really hard. And that is get some exercise, get the right amount of sleep, maintain social connections so that you can avoid depression pits, eat well, do all of those sorts of things. But that’s a daily commitment and I was already doing a good deal of them, so that was refreshing and good to know that I’m on the right track. And I do love my exercise because I sit in a chair so much, like a lot of people, on the keyboard. And I can feel in my body that if I could sit here, because I’ve got a long concentration span, for six or eight hours and then be in terrible pain, in so much pain that if they designed a coffin for me when I do die, it would have to be in the shape of the chair. [Laughs]

[Laughs]. That’s very funny. I feel bad about laughing at that.
No, you can. I’ve got a dark sense of humor, so feel free to laugh. This morning, I set my alarm for 4:30am and it’s been raining in Sydney quite horribly. I wanted to go and do a pump class because I’ve been inside for three straight days. And I do feel better for it. And now, what’s underpinning my reasons for doing things on a daily basis is this is going to help prevent a possible future with dementia for you.

Renée Brack with Dementia Australia ambassador, Ita Buttrose. Photo by Tony Mott.

What was your family’s reaction when you told them you were making a movie about your father?
I guess it was mixed. There were some days when, “It’s a good idea if that’s what you want to do, Renee. It’s within your wheelhouse of skills and everything.” But nobody else seemed to be struggling with Dad’s death like I was. We’re a country family from the Southern part of the New South Wales coast and rural, brought up around farms, and my mother was as well, so dealing with death was very much within people’s strides. And I’ve been going to family funerals since I was four-years-old and they were quite a celebration and a big event. But it wasn’t like that for me. And so, their story was much shorter because it was like, “Oh, we didn’t expect him to die so soon in the nursing home.” And then it was just, “Okay, well, we’ll get all his affairs in order.” And then that was it and they moved on with their lives and I sunk into a hole.

Do you think it was your connection through art? Were any of your siblings as artistic as you were?
They weren’t, no. So it was one of those really lovely father-daughter relationships. But also, the double edged sword of this is I was brought up in quite a progressive modern family in many ways, in terms of attitudes to gender roles and all of that. So when I left home at age 17 to go to uni in the big city, I hadn’t seen a taxi before. I didn’t know you could pay people money and they drove you around. And I was left by myself and I had no idea how to handle the sexism in society because my dad hadn’t prepared me for it.
I grew up barely aware that I was female because it wasn’t front and center as a defining part of my identity. And then to be such a young girl in the city alone, it became very apparent that not everybody thinks like dad. So it was quite a rude awakening.

Are you still creating art?
I am. I’ve got some pictures that I’ve got here in my home. I’m not very good. I don’t know whether I could have been, but most of my art is in my writing now, so yeah.

Is your father’s art stored safely at the moment, or is it still on display?
No, we had a very short exhibition, again because of COVID. And what I’ve done is packed everything up into two really large suitcases. And one of the things that I hope may be a possibility as the film moves into what I call the three Rs, which is rural, remote and regional areas, that we can have a popup art exhibition where I could go along. Yeah, so I’d love to do that but there’s no firm plans that are locked in at this stage.

Throughout the film, you speak a lot about seeing signs from your father. It got me wondering if you’re a spiritual person? Do you believe in the afterlife? It’s something you don’t speak about in the film. 
Oh, that’s a really good question. No one’s asked me that question and it’s a lovely big one because I was brought up as a fierce Catholic, terrified of going to hell. But then I went to boarding school, to a Catholic boarding school in the ’70s, which was brutal. And that cured me of Catholicism pretty quickly. I would say I’m spiritual, but not religious. And there are things that I can’t explain that happen, but I get quite a thrill that they happen because I can’t explain them. So I’m not so convinced of an afterlife outside of, this might sound a bit Hindu, but we’re born and if we do get buried and we turn into compost and we feed other animals, if flowers grow and cows eat them and so on, there is a cycle of life in that.
But occasionally, this weird thing happens to me, and it’s been happening now for a while, where just in the blind spot, what is described as your blind spot, I can hear a tiny little whisper that says, “Renee.”

Wow.
And it’s just out of the blue. It makes me feel good. I’d like to think that this isn’t all there is, but I don’t have any firm knowledge or beliefs in what I think it is. I’m quite happy going, “I don’t know it all. I really don’t.”

That’s a very positive way of looking at it. Others might run for their lives if they heard their name whispered in their ear without explanation. 
Well, it’s weird too, because I live alone. There’s never anyone there. But the oddest thing that did happen is after Dad was cremated and I came back to Sydney, you have this huge emptiness of… I guess it’s like a wedding, a build up to a funeral. And there’s so much to plan and so much to organise, and then nothing after that. And I became the girl that doesn’t have a dad anymore. And I was just in my kitchen doing my usual morning routine and I heard this explosion of glass, and I thought “What’s that? Someone’s thrown a rock at a window?” I looked around and finally found just a drinking glass where I had lots of pens in it spontaneously exploded. Can you explain it?

I can’t. Did it go from hot to cold? That’s all I’ve got. [Laughs].
That’s what others have said too. [Laughs].

The current state of the Australian aged care system plays a big part in this documentary, and this topic could quite easily be a documentary in itself. I know we’ve had the Royal Commission into aged are, but has anything changed regarding what you’re talking about here in relation to dementia?
I think it is slowly. But I think too, there’s a long way to go. Because we’ve got great journalists like Anne Connolly and Rick Morton, who do the really good, hard work in giving us the truth about what’s really happening. And I think it’s all too easy to, when people have Alzheimer’s or a form of dementia and they’re in nursing care or an institution or a facility, that they won’t remember things, it doesn’t really matter if they get angry, they’ll get over it and forget about it very quickly. And it was clear when my dad was in his nursing home, which doesn’t exist anymore and he was only there for a very short time. I remember going in to visit him and the quality of the food was low. Weak tea, sweet basic Arnott’s biscuits for afternoon tea. And they had this old television that was just playing DVDs on high rotation of 1940s musicals. And he didn’t seem to have a lot to do. And because he had the wandering dementia as I nickname it, he was in a facility that had gardens and flowers outside the window, but then super high walls. And he would’ve hated that in his lucid moments.
I know that I’d used to go and visit him, I just thought he was off with the pixies because of Alzheimer’s. And I didn’t ask the right questions of the care staff, who were lovely, but there was only one person on when I went to visit dad. And there were multiple people that needed care this person was mainly at an admin desk, not moving around and mixing with people. And so now, I think dad was on drugs, but I have no evidence or proof of that.

You think they were giving him drugs and you weren’t informed?
Well, I didn’t ask. So I don’t know whether it was their job to alert me to it or whether it should have been my responsibility to ask. And I didn’t think about it too much till after I started speaking with experts that are in the film. Because right up until he was diagnosed, I just assumed he was struggling with retirement and his artistic temperament was making him a bit cantankerous from time to time. Didn’t even occur to me it could be Alzheimer’s. And so, when he went into the nursing home, I just thought it was the same thing then. So you can imagine the guilt and then grief.

I found it quite interesting to read about your VR work. We have a producer here in Western Australia who’s creating virtual reality for people in palliative care. Patients can use the VR headset from their beds and wander down to the beach, or head off to a favourite holiday location. Do you think there’s a place for virtual reality in dementia care?
I do and I think it needs a lot more testing. I did VR experience when I was doing my master’s at UTS, but it was mainly for people who were wanting to find out more about how it would seem. So I tried to simulate what I learned from my dad’s dementia to recreate that. And it was only in its testing phase, so it’s not like some brilliantly produced VR experience.
But I remember when dad had bitten into a Spanish onion and I looked at him and I said, “You’re not going to like that.” And he said, “Yeah, I am.” And he kept eating it and I thought, “You’re being very defiant.” But it wasn’t that, the Alzheimer’s had mixed his taste buds up so he was getting very different signals going to his brain. He was getting apple signals and it was an onion. And so, I tried a little test where I had a red apple and a purple Spanish onion on a plate, and so they keep changing from one to the other. Because I wanted the person in the VR headset to come out of it and go, “I don’t even know if it’s an apple or an onion.”
So I tried that. But because it was my first time and it was at testing, I had so much else going on in the VR experience that you’d have to focus on the plate to notice the changes. I also overloaded it again too. I’ve got a giant painting of a Buddha and I got an animator to make the Buddha talk, like the painting had come to life. Because Dad had said to me that some of his paintings had faces in them and they were saying things to him. And I think I packed too much into it. But lesson learned, and this is the good thing about testing phases, is you don’t get too hung up on whether something has succeeded or failed.

To wrap up my interview with Renée, I asked the journalist-turned-filmmaker about her now famous TV interview with Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read, in which the convicted criminal, gang member and author surprised Renée with a game of Russian roulette – something which Renée has rarely spoken about publicly. You can watch the short video of Renée’s response below.

Renée Brack and Chopper Read.

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