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Film Review: The Lion's Mouth Opens

13 July 2015
Appeared in BioNews 810

'I've always felt like I don't have it. I've always known that I don't have it. I will better serve the world if I don't have it.'

Marianna Palka's nervous opening statements as she prepares for a dinner party set the scene for the tense atmosphere of the 'The Lion's Mouth Opens'. The occasion for the dinner party is Marianna finding out the next day the results of her genetic test for Huntington's disease, which her father suffers from and which she has a 50/50 chance of inheriting.

Initially the film seems to wander a little, as Marianna and her friends play a guessing game with dice – perhaps a metaphor for our lack of control over probability – and hold hands, séance-like, while discussing their friendship, Marianna and the effects of Huntington's disease. However, as Marianna and her mother reflect on her father's diagnosis when she was eight and his gradual progression (which they tearfully describe as watching a castle falling apart one brick at a time) the documentary begins to pull at the heartstrings.

The emotional core of the film comes as Marianna recites the poem Bob Dylan wrote for Woody Guthrie after his death from Huntington's, from which the film derives its title ('And the lion's mouth opens and yer staring at his teeth'). She speaks it with feeling over a montage of home videos of people with Huntington's disease struggling to drink tea, stand up or hug someone. Suddenly, Huntington's disease seems very real, and the terror of knowing you could have this faulty gene hits home.

There is no middle road with Huntington's disease: if you have the mutation you will inevitably develop the disease, and the 'worse' the mutation – the more repeats of the base-pair triplet CAG in the Huntington gene – the younger you will develop it. Marianna's earlier declaration that 'a positive result is a death sentence' now seems less dramatic and more factual. The immediate cut after the poem to the hospital, and Marianna awaiting the outcome of her test, made me genuinely nervous.

For much of the film, Marianna seems in denial about her chances of developing the disease, and she is not alone in this – the documentary ends with the statistic that less than 10 percent of those with a 50/50 chance of having the gene take the test. This raises the question: when faced with a disease so terrible, which is currently without cure, does it help to know if you will develop it?

I don't want to share Marianna's results – although she has shared them through the film, I think the importance lies more in her answering this question than about the results of her genetic test. Watching this documentary should be about empathising with this difficult scenario and the people who face it. The film is a moving portrait of Huntington's disease and, personally, I found it deeply courageous of Marianna to stare into the lion's mouth.

3 August 2015 - by Dr Victoria Burchell 
A genome-wide study of over 4000 people with Huntington's disease has identified the location several new gene variants that influence the onset of disease symptoms...
2 March 2015 - by Alice Hazelton 
Genome sequencing offers great potential for the effective diagnosis and future treatment of many conditions. But while the excitement continues to grow around the science, few have stopped to ask what patients, the ultimate end-beneficiaries of this technology, think...
23 February 2015 - by Sean Byrne 
Do you really want to know? This was the question presented in the award-winning documentary of the same title, and to the panel in a discussion that followed its recent screening by Genetic Alliance UK...
25 June 2012 - by Holly Rogers 
A single dose of an 'antisense' drug has been shown to slow, or even partially reverse, Huntington's disease in animal studies, according to a study published in Neuron....
11 July 2011 - by Daniel Malynn 
Adam Wishart's documentary charted his personal journey to discover the secrets hidden in his genes. After his mother's death from breast cancer, Adam wanted to discover whether he too is genetically at risk of developing the disease. Looking at his immediate family history, he found seven of his mother's 14 brothers, sister and cousins died from cancer. Adam's mother, aunt and grandmother all had breast cancer...
5 July 2010 - by Dr Jay Stone 
Two papers published in the Lancet have suggested that the number of people in the UK suffering with Huntington’s disease (HD) may be double original figures and that patients are failing to be diagnosed due to the stigma attached to the illness...
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