In 2018, charismatic West Australian printmaker and painter Leon Pericles held a major 50-year retrospective in Perth. For most of his career his wife Moira had handled the business side of his art practice, distributing his artwork to galleries, managing staff, and taking a curatorial role. But with the dementia that Moira had first begun to experience 10 years earlier, when she was 59, now escalating, this was no longer the case. Instead of focussing solely on his art as he would have done in the past, Leon found himself juggling roles as artist, husband and carer as he worked frantically to assemble work and create new pieces for the exhibition.

Moira and Leon Pericles in Storm in a Teacup. Photograph © DOP Darren McCagh, Artemis Media

Leon and Moira’s daughter, Nia Pericles, who is a film and television producer/director, has been filming her family since she was a child, and naturally wanted to cover her father’s important retrospective. But this almost meant putting a lens on the Alzheimer’s disease affecting Moira. The resulting documentary, Storm in a Teacup, which airs on ABC-TV at 9.30pm tonight, and then on ABC iView, is a bittersweet, moving look at the Pericles family.

Asked if she had thought long and hard about whether or not to make the documentary – which she wrote, directed, narrates and features in – Nia says: “I did on one level and I didn’t on another. Dad has been in the limelight a fair bit over the years, throughout my childhood. And as you see in the doco, I’ve been filming the family since I was a child. So the idea of telling a family story is something I’d always had in my head. I had this weird narration that would go through my mind. I don’t know how old I was, maybe 10 or 12, but because Dad was famous – big in that small bubble of Perth – as a small child in Perth, there was not a week that would not go past without someone saying to me ‘are you related to the artist?’ Our world revolved around him, and I always imagined that I would be talking and being interviewed about Dad at some point when I grew up. So I had this really weird premonition that maybe one day this would happen, and maybe this drove me to document the family a fair bit.”

“But [although I knew it would be great] to cover the exhibition, it was a very big decision in terms of exposing mum to this world, and making the decision, on her behalf, that she would be in the film. So, it took a long time to decide if it should be done, then once Dad and my brother and I agreed that it was the right thing to do, and that she would want to do this, we needed to engage with her siblings and make sure that they were all fine. So it was a long process.”

Nia makes it clear in the doco that the family never talk to Moira about dementia in order to protect her from the knowledge of having something she had always dreaded, having watching the disease affect her own mother. Nia shows some footage from fairly early on in the process in which her mother is conscious of what is happening to her. There are a couple of scenes where she seems to be aware of the camera and film crew. But as the six months of filming progressed, and her disease with it, that awareness dissipated, and she has no idea that the documentary was made.

“She was on anti-depressants, which really helped in terms of managing her anxiety and how she felt,” says Nia. “Early on it was a scary environment for her to be in as she was very confronted by the notion of having the disease. It was her number one fear and she was living it, so as a family we decided that we not tell her that she had anything wrong with her memory – and that was because we wanted her to be alive. She made it very clear what she would do [if she realised that she had dementia] – and she did attempt to kill herself, so it was obvious to us that we would [do all we could to] keep her happy. She was always very distressed when she thought she had a memory problem, and whenever she didn’t she was great, she was free and happy. It’s a really difficult moral and ethical dilemma, and I think about it often, the right for her to know what’s going on, but I do think she did know a lot of the time as well, and as Dad said in the film she was trying to protect us.”

Leon and Moira Pericles in Storm in a Teacup. Photograph © David Dare Parker

Moira has always loved classical music. There is a very poignant scene in the documentary where she and Leon go to an Australian String Quartet concert. Sitting together holding hands, with their eyes closed, Moira is clearly swept away. Asked about the experience afterwards she says of the music: “it transports you into a different state, like a higher order of senses, and that’s just a lovely place to be”.

“Music is more and more a part of her life,” says Nia. “It always has been a big part of her life. She played the piano and the guitar, and in later years when my brother was growing up she played the clarinet with him. I played the violin for 12 years, and Dad plays every instrument; he would have been a rock star if he wasn’t an artist, so music is a big part of our family and it always has been. Mum in particular has a passion for classical music. She was one of the West Australian members on the board of the Australian String Quartet, and on the board of University of WA Music, and on the board at WAAPA, so there were a lot of avenues for her to really connect with a lot of musical people and go to a lot of recitals and concerts, which was wonderful.”

“But now music is still very much part of their life. Dad plays music to get her out of bed. She is very rarely distressed but if she is in a grumpy mood and doesn’t want to get out of bed he will play morning music. I just bought her a headset. This is something that is becoming quite popular with people with dementia. You can get a headset and program it with the person’s favourite music and then they can go anywhere with it on, and they are not confined to the room that the music is in, and she loves it. She just adores it. Her face lights up. She is like a little girl in a lolly shop, and she’ll sit on the couch and say, ‘Leon could you put the music on now?’ She gets quite emotional with music; there is a deep connection there so it really is beautiful.”

In other scenes we watch Nia chatting with Tim Minchin who she knew from high school days when they were both in the Midnite Youth Theatre Company, and whose family has always been a big supporter of Leon’s work. We see footage she took of the family from years before when she was still a child. We see the pressure on Leon as the exhibition deadline approaches and he is struggling to find any quiet time to make new work, as well as candid moments where Leon and Nia snipe at each other as the stress takes its toll.

Nia Pericles and Tim Minchin. Photograph © Paul Costello

None of the scenes were rehearsed. “It was a true observational documentary. We never rehearsed anything, it’s not the way, you don’t get any good material by rehearsing, it softens and dilutes it,” says Nia.

She laughs at mention of the occasional moments of grumpiness between her and Leon. “We have a reasonably volatile relationship. We absolutely adore each other but we are very similar, the little hot-headed stuff. He was dealing with so much stress and on top of that I’m throwing cameras in his face so he coped exceptionally well. I painted myself as a bigger ogre than I am but that’s because I certainly didn’t want to paint Dad as the ogre. And I need the family to stay together and still be friends!” she adds with a big laugh.

“Sitting next to Dad during the rough cut was reasonably nerve-wracking, and I thought ‘anything could happen here, he could hate it’. It’s not worth making a film if it’s going to tear the family apart so I was very relieved when he was laughing throughout and just really appreciated how much love there was behind it. It really is a homage to Mum. She really is the star of the show in a way.”

Nia and the team behind Storm in a Teacup are working with Dementia Australia. This week is Dementia Action Week, so it is the perfect time for it to screen on the ABC.

“It is an opportunity for people to see inside a home where people are living with, and dealing with, a person with dementia and caring for them full time. It does bring up discussions about how do you treat and engage with a person with dementia. There is a lot of confusion out there and people don’t know how to behave. We are still learning so much about the illness so I think this will just give people the impetus to engage and talk about it,” says Nia. “We are certainly not picture-perfect but it is [showing] that these people are still real people, they still have emotions and need to be engaged and communicated with and understood. So we need to understand what they are going through, how their brain is changing, how it affects their eyesight, how it affects their moods, what kinds of things trigger them. It’s really complicated but this is one family’s story. So I do hope it raises awareness in the right ways and starts a discussion about voluntary assisted dying. I think that’s a conversation that the country needs to have ASAP. [Dementia] is the number one killer of women in Australia, 447,000 people have it now and it is going to be a big issue. People need to be able to take their life into their own hands in that sense and be in control.”

Storm in a Teacup screens on ABC-TV tonight at 9.30pm and will later be available on ABC iView