Sally Potter’s new film The Roads Not Taken is a study of dementia, dedicated to her own brother, Nic, who had Pick’s Disease, a rare type of age-related dementia.
In the movie the lead character, played by Javier Bardem, is seen going about a normal day in New York city – attending appointments with his daughter (played by Elle Fanning), while his mind is elsewhere, reliving parallel versions of his own life.
Potter told Sky News it was inspired by her own experiences: “It’s not a portrait of him, the character as played by Javier Bardem is about as far away from my brother as it could be, but it’s personal, absolutely.
“I witnessed very close up somebody going through very altered states of mind and experiencing great difficulties and how they’re treated in that situation, but also began to wonder, well, maybe there’s something also magical going on in the mind, the mysteries of where somebody disappears to when they seem very far away.”
It’s a comforting take on a disease we’re used to seeing either largely ignored on screen or portrayed in a negative light.
Potter explained it was important to her to take a different approach.
“I wanted to portray somebody who’s going through great neurological changes, whether that’s dementia or one of the many other neurological illnesses, not just as a victim, as somebody who’s a sad case that everybody should feel sorry for – even though, of course, it is a devastating illness.
“I don’t want to minimise that – but there’s a person there, this is the point.”
Potter goes on: “And even when somebody is going through great difficulties with speech or understanding, there’s always a way of communicating creatively, sharing experience, sharing humour, and in a way, going into their space and trying to understand well how is this person seeing the world.
“And you know, maybe it’s wishful thinking, but it led me to think, you know what? My brother may appear to others to be disappearing, but maybe he’s going somewhere really interesting, maybe he’s visiting the parts of himself that he couldn’t fulfil in life, those sorts of potentialities – the roads not taken.”
The film is getting a cinematic release in the UK and Ireland, but Potter has already witnessed it being pulled in other territories due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Unlike some filmmakers who are intent on audiences watching on big screens, the director says she’s open to people seeing it however suits them.
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Potter explains: “I feel very flexible about the multiple ways you can watch, and I think it’s exciting, it’s not necessarily a limitation.
“This film, however, was of course designed for the big screen, and it was fantastic to watch its premiere in the Berlin Film Festival in this, two-thousand-seater, absolutely full and a huge screen.
“That’s the experience it was designed for and filmed for, but I think that people can have also a very wonderful, intimate experience with a film watching it at home, and that’s totally valid.”
The Roads Not Taken is in cinemas in the UK and Ireland from Friday 11 September.
For information about dementia and support, visit alzheimers.org.uk or call Alzheimer’s Society Dementia Connect Support Line on 0333 150 3456.