There is quote from Yoko Ono that says, “art is a way of survival.” This is true in more ways than one. As an action, art helps you to survive. The act of making art is a way of choosing how you live. Going further, art as a noun, as the product of your action, is a means of survival as well. The art lives on after the artist’s physical self, surviving and preserving the artist’s passions, ideas, and spirit.
A Woman Like Me, which recently premiered at South by Southwest and won the Special Jury Award for Directing, lives on even after the passing of its creator and subject, Alex Sichel. As we see in the film, her time making this movie allowed her the opportunity to make choices and exert control over her life at a time when choices can seem painfully limited.
After Sichel, a successful director (All Over Me, If These Walls Could Talk 2), was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, she began to imagine a film about a woman similar to herself with a similar diagnosis. Sichel gives the protagonist of her movie the name Anna Seashell (played by Lili Taylor) and the optimistic outlook of someone for whom the glass is always half full. She enlisted the help of longtime friend Elizabeth Giamatti and the two began not only making this fictional movie, but also recording the filmmaking experience and Sichel’s daily life. The resulting film is both a documentary and a work of fiction, and it’s nearly impossible not to be moved by this singularly original approach to art and life.
“What does this mean to try to fictionalize your life when you’re right on the middle of it…can that be helpful? Can the act of transforming the really scary big stuff of your own life into a fictionalized version of yourself—can that be helpful, can it allow you to imagine a different way of going about things that could be helpful?”
Can it? I ask.
Well,” Giamatti tells me, “it doesn’t need to, is one answer. I think that the process of exploring it is valuable in and of itself even if you don’t end up with specific answers about how to handle things differently.”
She also adds, of Sichel, “the act of making a movie about [the situation] was in and of itself sort of playful and joyful, so that gave her a certain lightness.”
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Watching the movie, it’s not hard to see that the gift is in the experience. And yet, for an exploratory, process-oriented film, the final product is complete and satisfying. Sichel is a most remarkable subject, warm and direct, and a number of complex and profound themes emerge effortlessly. There are very real and unforced meditations on life, death, and family.
There is also confrontation on multiple levels: confronting death, confronting your physical body, confronting an actor who is playing your fictionalized self, confronting your family and friends about sensitive and sometimes controversial issues, going head-to-head with people and ideas because there’s no more time left to be evasive. Two of the most poignant fictional scenes involve confrontation: in the first, Anna argues with multiple versions of herself while looking in the mirror and trying, desperately to admit she loves herself; in the second, she forces her husband to participate in the rehearsal of her death, all the way down to the drug-addled moans she expects she’ll be making.
Those moans, it should be noted, are also rather funny, managing to bring some levity to an otherwise deeply tragic scene. There are many little moments of lightness and comedy throughout A Woman Like Me, keeping both subjects and viewers afloat.
In fact, the idea of buoyancy comes up again and again as I speak with Giamatti. She tells me that they settled on this final title over the original working title, The Movie About Anna, in part because that first title ended up feeling too heavy, whereas they wanted something that “felt playful and buoyant, [even] before you saw the movie.” (One other insight: Giamatti says that after Alex passed, she had to “make a thousand and one decisions” about the movie, but that “the title was the one thing I was like I wish Alex were here!”)
When I ask her about audience reception, she shares how excited and touched she is that people are genuinely moved by the film, noting that having an intense subject matter “is not a guarantee that you’re going to move people.” She tells me that “people are walking out sad, but also feeling—somebody said ‘feeling strangely buoyant’ and that makes me really happy. Because I do think that’s the right combination.”
For Giamatti, this reaction is a sign that she’s done something right. “It was one of the most important things that this movie had a sense of humor and a sense of lightness about it. And maybe that’s why it manages to also be moving.” She continues, “I’m not a Buddhist, but I got a quite a bit through osmosis with Alex, and it’s like what she says in the movie: to try to hold it lightly, no matter how heavy it is.”
Giamatti hopes that almost any viewer can personally relate to the film because “it’s about using your imagination to try to change your relationship to shitty circumstances, whatever they are.”
Additionally, A Woman Like Me can and will be an unbelievable comfort both to cancer survivors and to those dealing with a recent diagnosis. Imagine a newly-diagnosed breast cancer patient watching this film and seeing a woman like herself, processing the emotional turmoil, confronting death and admitting fear, and also—this should not be understated—going through the actual necessary steps of treating and living with this disease. Sichel ruefully laughing and calling her infusion “the good stuff” is a way of demystifying the process—normalizing it, humanizing it, really living with it. And as Sichel muses at various points in the film, cancer patients often end up being defined by the mythos of their disease to such a degree that others—and they themselves—forget about the real person underneath the cancer-talk.
It’s no wonder she’s so drawn to places where her cancer simply cannot define her. She thrives during a silent Buddhist retreat, where she laughs at herself for bringing a video camera: “Without talking there’s no story. And nobody else knows my story and there’s no cancer!” Similarly, when she visits her mother’s hometown in Greece, she is amazed to find that the locals don’t fall over themselves in agony and pity when they learn her diagnosis. It’s just another fact of life to them. At this point in the film, viewers have been on this ride with Sichel long enough to understand just how refreshing that reaction is.
It might seem odd for the subject matter, but refreshing is a good way of describing A Woman Like Me. It’s a film that takes risks—and why not? When you’re back is against the wall and your time is short, why not take creative risks and try everything you’ve got? Sichel exhausts every option for treatment, and she and Giamatti plumb the depths of creative expression, pulling in fiction, surrealism, decades-old home movies, and in two stunning scenes, MRI scans that morph and flow like psychedelic Rorschach tests as haunting music plays. These beautiful, expressive moments of artistry enhance the very grounded reality, and seem to emerge organically from Sichel’s experiences.
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Throughout filming, Giamatti and Sichel both strongly emphasized the process-oriented nature of the project. This, Giamatti tells me, was from beginning to end a discovery film, as much about the creative process as anything else. “When do you ever get to do that in filmmaking?” Giamatti asks with some wonder and excitement in her voice. “It was an incredible luxury and totally transformative.”
Towards the end of the interview, I ask about the ways that this filming process changed her. “You know,” she reflects, “what’s changed me about making this movie has to do with the pure joy that making this movie was, and the incredibly awesome nature of our collaboration. And I’ve had a lot of great collaborations in my life but this—there was something very special about this one.”
And that comes through. To see Sichel directing her actors, building her scenes, engaging with her family and detailing her experiences to the camera, is to see an artist living her vision.
Working on the film “reminded me of the pure joy of making things,” Giamatti says. And for Sichel, how else was she going choose to tackle the final years of her life other than by making something? When it comes to cancer, however a person copes is acceptable. Whatever their response, it’s understandable. But how lucky are we all that Alex Sichel responded with art?
Kayleigh Hughes is an editor, freelance writer, and overthinker. In addition to contributing to Loser City, Kayleigh has written for Ovrld and xoJane. Talk to her about literally anything–she doesn’t have that many friends–on twitter or via email.