A Woman Like Me may be an auto-biographical film about terminal illness, but it certainly is not your typical documentary. Infusing elements of scripted re-enactments and true-to-life footage, Alex Sichel creates a hybrid form of documentary in order to cope with her diagnosis of malignant breast cancer.
The concept for A Woman Like Me came to Sichel shortly after her initial diagnosis, when she couldn’t shake the image in her mind of a “fictional version of [herself] with a similar diagnosis, but who kept moving forward”. Along with Elizabeth Giamatti, the director’s fellow filmmaker and creative colleague, Sichel concluded that the most natural way for her to confront her illness was to film it.
The woman in her vision, whom she names Anna, becomes a symbolic parallel of her own life and contemplations, acting as a surrogate for Sichel’s lighthearted observations as well as an equally troubled version of herself. With their fingers on the record button, Sichel and Giamatti chose to shoot scenes from Anna’s like-minded story on top of documenting the director’s treatment. “It’s my way of understanding what’s going on,” she explains in one scene.
Anna’s (Lili Taylor, The Conjuring) scenes play across the screen like intimate re-enactments of true life events during Sichel’s stages of grief, sprinkled in between real documentary footage and behind-the-scenes footage of the production. A Woman Like Me is, essentially, a documentary within a documentary, with a bit of scripted action thrown in.
Despite her desire for humor and positivity during her experience, the months after Sichel’s diagnosis reveal themselves to be riddled with fear, self-hate, and anguish. As a myriad of stress begins to accumulate in her family life, the necessity for a clear-cut spiritual faith is magnified. Many times she struggles desperately between modern medical science (i.e. chemotherapy, surgical implants, and a rainbow of pills) and her holistic Buddhist meditation, with her friends and loved ones trying to tug her towards one or the other.
A Woman Like Me is a journey of fear versus acceptance, acknowledging death, and learning not to resist one’s fate in life. Sichel is a dynamic presence on screen, as is Taylor’s Anna, both attempting to navigate a destiny that they fundamentally reject.