One woman faces her cancer diagnosis by directing a film about another woman in the same situation in this meta documentary.
A Woman Like Me (SXSW Review)
Describing A Woman Like Me to an outsider gets a little complicated. When put as simply as possible its a documentary made by director Alex Sichel, who upon receiving the news that she has metastatic breast cancer decides to process this information by directing a film about a woman facing the same diagnosis with as much positivity as she can…while simultaneously documenting this process and her own treatment for what would become this documentary. It’s not quite a movie within a movie so much as it is two movies playing out side by side with behind-the-scenes footage playing at the same time as well. Confusing? Yes. Meta? Maybe. Moving? Absolutely.
Co-directed by Alex Sichel and first-time director Elizabeth Giamatti (wife to Paul and producer of many of his films), a majority of the film is diary-style with Alex speaking directly into her handheld camera, and in this way the actual documentary part of the film feels a lot like a look into the last few years of a woman who has a form of cancer she knows she won’t survive. Along with her husband Erich, Alex faces this stunning news with shock at first, then starts making hard decisions about her treatment. Knowing any sort of treatment is more about prolonging the inevitable, she prefers to attempt holistic care first, pulling from her Buddhist beliefs and consulting with healers. Eventually she does begin pill-based chemotherapy, but continues to watch her diet and go to meditative retreats.
As she makes each decision along the way, or seeks out new forms of healing, the film will switch over to her ongoing film project simply called Untitled Film About Anna, “Anna” being Anna Seashell, the alter-ego Alex has written to be the upbeat positive version of her own experience, played by Lili Taylor. The production of the film is shown as part of the documentary, with a focus on moments when Alex gives Lili direction on her scenes—scenes that are actual moments of Alex’s life—and one has to wonder if she directs her to behave exactly as she did when experiencing them in reality, or if she directs Lili to perform it the way Alex wishes she had.
Is Alex justifying her own decisions in how she has chosen to approach her illness? Her parents—interviewed on camera for the documentary—make it clear they wish she’d do everything the modern Western doctors tell her to in order to live as long as she can. Her husband interrupts her in the middle of a dinner party at one point, disagreeing with her interpretation of what a doctor told them, preferring to be more realistic than optimistic. It’s such a perfect example of the way one’s body is seen as no longer one’s own when an illness takes it over in a way that affects others lives too.
Alex often blurs the lines between her various roles throughout the documentary, making for an interesting take on this unique woman. She clearly identifies as a creator, it comes out of her even at a time when most people would find it difficult to be artistic. Her role as a mother and wife mingling with her artistic nature and need to capture this part of her life. This especially is perfectly captured in a scene of the family, Alex, Erich, and their daughter, sitting down for a meal together. Their daughter is more inclined to play than eat, so Alex moves her food back into the kitchen and Erich accuses her of moving it to make the “scene” look better.
It may be hard for some to understand Alex Sichel’s documentary and the way she chose to face her diagnosis. But with a disease that allows for almost no control over one’s body it isn’t hard to imagine that a woman who clearly likes to direct the stories of others would want to find a way to direct the story of her own life. The film about Anna feels somewhat weak when paired with the documentary, especially in how bright and optimistic it is compared to the reality of Alex’s life, but it’s exactly this juxtaposition that provides multi-layered insight into Alex’s experience, most especially in understanding her.
A Woman Like Me is heartbreaking but not sad. If anything good can be said of cancer, it’s that it has pulled out of many a talented artist greater works than they probably thought themselves capable of. It’s difficult to watch the misfortunes of others, but Alex Seichel’s way of dealing with her diagnosis, as bizarre as it sometimes feels, is raw and real, even as she weaves a fantasy around it. Equal amounts hopeful and hopeless, it’s exactly as complex as I imagine living with cancer must be.