Film chronicles woman’s battle with dementia

LOS ANGELES — Pamela Hogan knew Laury Sachs before, as a talented, big-hearted friend, wife and mother. Connie Shulman knew Sacks after, when she was in the grip of the early onset dementia that would swiftly claim her life.

Together, documentarian Hogan and actress Shulman, who plays Yoga Jones in “Orange Is the New Black,” carefully recorded Sachs’ treacherous journey to help ease her isolation as the disease progressed.

“Looks Like Laury, Sounds Like Laury,” the result made its debut Tuesday on World Channel, part of the third season of its “America ReFramed.” The documentary will stream on starting today and through April 9.

Although Sacks herself was an actor and writer, it was motherhood that brought the three Manhattan residents together. Their children were playmates and the women became friends: Hogan met Sacks in the late 1990s, and Shulman joined the circle in 2005 when Sacks was being transformed by illness.

At age 46, the once witty, exuberant woman was having difficulty expressing herself; neurological tests ultimately diagnosed frontotemporal dementia. It’s the term for a group of disorders that tend to occur at a younger age than Alzheimer’s, between 40 and 75, and which affect areas of the brain generally associated with personality, behavior and language, according to the Mayo Clinic.

When Sacks’ husband, Eric, asked for help in keeping her engaged, Shulman suggested to her friend the idea of recording her struggle. Sacks didn’t need words to respond.

“Laury pulled out her cellphone, dialed it and handed me the phone,” Shulman recalled. “The person on the other end was Pam Hogan, who knows how to make a film happen. … That to me was (Sacks’) endorsement of, ‘Let’s do it.’”

She and Hogan agreed they would film until Sacks was not an “active participant” in the project, Shulman said.

Shulman, Hogan and others worked on the project as a labor of love and around their jobs. A rough version was completed during Sacks’ life, but Hogan felt too close to the project to bring it to a screen-ready conclusion.

“We didn’t really think of it as a film; it was almost an ongoing friendship gesture to stay close to her,” Hogan said. From her perspective as an award-winning documentary filmmaker, the decision to eventually revisit and complete it was the right one.

“It explores the human condition in a fresh way. Through the lens (of the disease) you see the fragility but also the resilience of what it is to be human,” Hogan said.

And it was the proper call to record their friend’s story. Sacks died at age 52 in 2008.

The project “made her feel seen. She didn’t want to be isolated,” Hogan said. “Look at how she’s reaching out at the camera. She’s saying, ‘See me. I’m here.’”