Palka seeks Huntington disease fate with courage, strength in permeating “The Lion’s Mouth Opens”

Monday, December 01, 2014



In “The Lion’s Mouth Opens,” Marianna Palka courageously faces her chances of inheriting Huntington disease (courtesy “The Lion’s Mouth Opens”) 

Editor’s note: On Jan. 29, 2015, the UI HDSA COE will screen “The Lion’s Mouth Opens” at 7 p.m. in W10 Pappajohn Business BuildingSpoiler info: The following review of “The Lion’s Mouth Opens” does notdisclose the results from Palka’s genetic testing for HD, which is revealed in the film. 

By Sean Thompson 

In a lot of ways, Marianna Palka is different from most people you know. She is a director and actress, and moved to New York from Scotland at age 18 with dreams of making films and less than $100 to her name. She made those dreams come true, as a film she wrote, directed and starred in premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Some in Palka’s close circle of friends are well-known actors and actresses, like Jason Ritter and Bryce Dallas Howard. 

There is one crucially important, life-defining way, however, in which Palka desperately wants to be like everyone else. Like an estimated 200,000 Americans, Palka is at risk for Huntington disease (HD). There’s a 50-50 chance she inherited the disease from her father, who started showing symptoms when Palka was eight years old. If presymptomatic genetic testing for the disease returns a positive result, she will eventually develop the cognitive, emotional and physical symptoms of this progressive, neurodegenerative disease for which there is presently no cure. 

In the permeating “The Lion’s Mouth Opens,” the Academy Award shortlisted documentary directed by Lucy Walker, Palka and the audience find out her medical fate. 

“Getting a positive result is like a death sentence,” Palka says in the film. “And if you get the opposite, then you just get to be like everyone else.” 

Walker says she was initially reluctant when contacted by Palka about making this film, but when she found out what Palka was facing and how courageously she was doing so, she went all in. Now, after making the film, Walker has joined Palka as a dedicated advocate for HD awareness. 

In one of the most acclaimed short documentaries of the year, the two-time Academy Award nominated Walker adeptly drops the viewer off in Palka’s apartment the night before she receives her definitive genetic testing results. Thanks to Palka’s amazing, supportive and loving group of friends that come over for dinner, this is perhaps the most comforting room that’s also filled floor-to-ceiling with cutting tension ever shown on screen. Her support system is solidly in place, but it is Palka’s anxious if not clearheaded bravery that carries her and everyone else through that night and what is to come the following day at the medical center. 

Palka is described by her friends and Walker as a brilliant person with an incredible mind, which comes across in the film through her subdued sense of humor and ability to glide from one emotion to the next; worry, to assuredness, to comfort, to denial. It all feels genuinely Marianna, and it all comes plainly through the screen and into the viewers’ hearts. 

The simplicity of the way Walker made “The Lion’s Mouth Opens” (title taken from a line in a Bob Dylan poem about Woody Guthrie that becomes central to the film) presents what unfolds as it should be: raw, honest and without pretense. A single camera captures Palka’s journey. There is some touching interview footage with Palka’s mother and Ritter, but there is no dramatic music or narrators. There’s just life, and the most important moment in one person’s life at that. 

This film succeeds at opening viewers’ eyes to a moment of revelation few will ever face or even fully understand (Palka’s results are revealed in the film, but not in this article). Thanks to Palka’s courage and openness, the viewer is left jolted, pulse quickened, but with a heart more open than the agape jaws of any frighteningly foreboding lion’s mouth. 

In a 28-minute documentary, you might expect to be plucked out of what has just unfolded just as easily as you were dropped in, but due to “The Lion’s Mouth Opens” commanding impact, you are likely to be unready and unwilling to detach yourself. In that case, Walker and Palka hope you consider making a donation to fund HD research, or simply tell someone about HD and what you saw in this remarkable film. It’s an incredible gift to the HD community that Palka and Walker are using Palka’s story to make a difference by shining a spotlight on this disease and the lives it impacts.


In “The Lion’s Mouth Opens,” Marianna Palka experiences her last night of not knowing her medical fate with regard to inheriting Huntington disease with her close group of friends (courtesy “The Lion’s Mouth Opens) 

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