Theft: A Candid Portrait of Dementia
Short film “Theft”, starring Shaun and Shea Johnston, captures the enduring bond between father and son as they adapt to life with dementia.
Robert returns from the park to an unlocked front door and his home in disarray. Suspecting an intruder, he fears for his safety. But what he doesn’t know, is that the breach is in his own mind.
When his son Robbie later finds him puzzled and distressed, they work together to find the familiar in Robert’s world of mounting confusion.
This aptly titled short film, Theft, was written, directed, and produced by filmmaker Matt Prazak, with the help of a talented crew from Tapped Potential Films, a Calgary-based production company.
Starring father-and-son duo, Shaun and Shea Johnston, Theft gives a poignant glimpse into the memory loss and uncertainty that can accompany dementia.
Its purpose is to connect with viewers and raise awareness and understanding of how dementia can impact families.
Bringing a vision to life
The film’s origin has a deep meaning for Prazak, who based Robert on his grandfather’s experience with dementia. Even the setting and décor were influenced by memories of his grandpa’s home.
“It's a very personal story to me, and sometimes it's hard to sit down and watch it because it still pulls from so much of myself,” Prazak says. “I hope this film can showcase the unwavering love and compassion that people feel for one another from both sides, whether living with dementia or caring for those with it.”
Though the story had been written for awhile, the film started coming together when Prazak received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Alberta Foundation for the Arts.
Its development began a few years ago, but like with many productions, the COVID-19 pandemic postponed progress — several times.
In the meantime, Prazak’s familial experience with dementia pushed him to want to tell the story as intimately and authentically as possible. He consulted people living with dementia, care partners and doctors about how to approach filming the topic with integrity.
“I'm very grateful for that additional research to help motivate me to want to tell the story, and to tell it without fabricating any of the details,” he says.
Once it was deemed safe to return to set, Theft finally filmed over two days in July 2021 — but it was too late to be featured in the major film festivals. So, its release had to be pushed to 2022.
Prazak says he is excited to finally get the film out there.
“To be ready to finally put this out into the world and share it, it's nice,” he says. “With the stories I make, as soon as they're shared to the public, it's not just my story anymore, it's our story.”
Reflecting on the making of the film, Prazak emphasizes that it was made possible by the actors who brought to life the raw emotion he sought to create.
"By the time I got to the end of the [script], I was virtually breaking down because it was so beautifully crafted."
– Shaun Johnston
Casting Shaun and Shea Johnston
Prazak had always imagined the role of Robert being played by Shaun Johnston, an award-winning Canadian actor known for his role on CBC’s long-running series, Heartland.
“I knew with Shaun, the story would be in good hands because of his decades of experience as a performer on screen,” says Prazak.
So, he reached out, hoping Shaun would take a chance on him and his vision and accept the role. But Shaun says the choice to accept the role came easy.
“I was involved with this character immediately,” says Shaun. “As the story progressed on paper, it just became more authentic, more real and more heartbreaking. By the time I got to the end of the story, I was virtually breaking down because it was so beautifully crafted.”
Shaun says he was able to connect with his character in a way that reminded him of his time with his late father-in-law, who started to lose his memory in his later years.
“A character like that experiences a great number of fears all day because they don’t know what is happening in the moment,” he says. “They know what they might want to achieve, but every obstacle is a problem that can’t be solved. That’s how I approached the role of Robert.”
Shea found himself in the role after Shaun sent him a copy of the script. Like Shaun, he was captivated by Prazak’s creation and signed on to the project.
“Matt has a very powerful and palpable way of connecting with the reader, and as we see in the film, the viewer,” says Shea. “He knows how to tug at heart strings in a very meaningful way.”
Of course, Prazak was excited to have both actors join the team, and says their relationship indeed shines through in the film. “It was a match made in heaven — knowing that they are father and son in real life and that they could build on this lasting connection in the project.”
“It took all these years to finally do a project where I could actually feel the way I wanted other people to feel when I work.”
– Shaun Johnston
An unexpected impact
Even before reaching an audience, the film has had an impact — on the actors. Shea says his performance was not only boosted by his father’s impassioned dedication to his role, but it created a connection he hadn’t had before filming.
“I turned the corner and there was my dad, usually strong and stoic with a big moustache, now very believably frail,” says Shea. “This man was struggling for his life, struggling to keep what he has defined his life with — he did such a fantastic job.”
The role also left a lasting impact on Shaun. “It took all these years to finally do a project where I could actually feel the way I wanted other people to feel when I work.”
Ultimately, he hopes the film can educate about dementia and make viewers feel the same way he did when he first saw the film.
“I want them to believe that this is an honest and authentic depiction of Alzheimer's or dementia,” Shaun says. “In a microcosm of one family, [dementia] is extremely impactful, and I want them to see that and be ready for it when it comes to their lives.”
Shea says he hopes viewers can connect with the story in some way, whether dementia-related or through another type of trauma.
“The fact that we have the opportunity to be able to actually do a little bit of good with something that we've created in part with Matt Prazak and the rest of his production team is very special,” Shea says.
Fundraising for dementia
To help support people living with dementia, the crew is holding a fundraiser — in partnership with Anything for Alzheimer’s — to accompany the film’s upcoming release.
The goal is to raise money and awareness for the dementia community. All fundraiser proceeds will go to the Alzheimer Society of Alberta and Northwest Territories (see Get More Information section below the article to donate).
“We just want to get the word out, spread a good message and hope others see what we're doing and want to support,” says Prazak.
“I hope [Theft] can break down a few barriers so people can begin to talk about these things more."
– Matt Prazak
Next up: The big debut
Theft is set to premiere at the Edmonton International Film Festival on September 26, 2022. It will be available online for a limited time following the festival.
However, it is already making an impression in the film industry and is nominated for four Rosie Awards at the Alberta Film and Television Awards, including Best Scripted Production Under 30 Minutes, Best Performance by a Male Actor (Shaun Johnston), Best Screenwriter (Matt Prazak) and Best Editor (Rino Mioc).
As Prazak looks forward to the film’s debut, he hopes viewers see and feel the unwavering love and compassion between people living with dementia and their care partners. And he wants his film to encourage conversation and acceptance.
“I hope this can break down a few barriers so people can begin to talk about these things more,” he says. “Live in the moment … be present and accept everyone for who they are.”
GET MORE INFORMATION
Watch Theft - Time Limited Release!
Watch the Theft trailer.
Donate to the fundraiser to help support the Alzheimer Society of Alberta and Northwest Territories.
Check out the upcoming Edmonton International Film Festival.
Read other articles about how creativity and art — from film and theatre, to poetry and music — can help you to live well with dementia.
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