Film documents lives of conjoined Hogan twins

It didn’t surprise Judith Pyke to learn the seven-year-old twins featured in her new documentary were more compliant and camera-friendly than she could have hoped.

Like most girls their age, Tatiana and Krista Hogan love birthday cake, dressing up and playing with their favourite toys, which in their case happen to be Power Rangers.

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What sets the Vernon twins apart, however, was that they’ve become media superstars because of an astonishing condition that Pyke’s hour-long documentary, Twin Life: Sharing Mind and Body, reveals hasn’t dimmed their zest for life.

The adorable youngsters are the only known craniopagus twins able to see, taste and feel what the other does. Connected at their heads, they have an unusual neural anatomy, their brains linked by a “thalamic bridge” — a neural path between each girl’s thalamus, which regulates consciousness and relays sensory and motor signals.

When the conjoined twins were born, they made international news, and their family remains inundated with media requests.

“As a result, they understand the media comes in and out, so it’s not like we were dealing with children who had never seen a camera before,” said Pyke, the film’s Victoria-raised writer and director.

“They were really happy to have us around and had fun with us. They are beautiful, happy children. They were silly and playful.”

The documentary, which airs tonight at 7 on CBC’s Doc Zone, captures a year in the life of the sisters who were given only a 20 per cent chance of survival at birth, but continue to defy the odds. It follows events in their lives such as entering Grade 2, Halloween, their seventh birthday party, a trip to Science World and a medical trip to Vancouver to monitor their epilepsy and heart issues.

The children, whose mother recalls a physician once declared would “be lying in their beds all their lives,” have been doing just the opposite, Pyke’s revealing and uplifting film reveals.

Their parents, Felicia and Brendan Hogan, and supportive grandparents Louise and Doug McKay, who live in a motorhome on their property, take the challenges in their stride in a bid to give them a normal life.

“The family is very sensitive but they don’t treat the girls like china dolls, which for a lot of people would be the inclination,” said Pyke, 43. “Of course, you wouldn’t want anything to be dangerous for them, but the family has always taken the ‘never-say-don’t’ approach. Let them be kids, out in the world, and that’s what they are.”

That Pyke and her collaborators were eager to document this during the rambunctious twins’ daily lives at home was why the family was so receptive.

“They wanted people to have more of an understanding,” she said, noting the girls are nurtured by a loving family who regard them as a blessing.

“It’s hard, but I would never change it,” Felicia, a mother of five, says tearfully in the film. “In the next lifetime, if I could have this life again, I would choose it over everything.”

While Twin Life is anything but downbeat, Pyke admits she shed some tears during post-production.

“My editor and I cried in the editing bay, but it was happy-sad tears because it was very touching,” she said.

During the shoot itself, some moments were as heart-pounding as they were heart-rending, Pyke said, recalling a sequence in which the girls, beyond excited, go to a waterslide park.

“When we got there, I nearly had a heart attack,” recalled Pyke. “We’re at these freakin’ water slides and these children who are joined at the head wanted to go down them.”

After some unexpected trepidation, the girls go for it.

“It epitomizes the way they appoach life,” Pyke said. “Although they were all excited, even Felicia, she thought, ‘I don’t think the girls will be able to do this.’ ”

The whole point, however, was to responsibly follow Tatiana and Krista as they do what comes naturally.

“I often said, ‘Don’t do this for us because we’re here. Just be your normal selves,” she said, recalling sequences capturing the girls running down a hill and hopping on a couch.

“There were times I was going ‘omigawd,’ but they were just doing what kids do.”

Pyke, who has a two-year-old child, said Twin Life wasn’t just a filmmaking experience, but an education.

“I just have so much respect for families dealing with children with a disability,” she said. “Having a kid is hard enough. It’s wonderful and amazing and challenging.”

While many people often talk about the importance of living in the moment, “this family really knows what that means,” Pyke said. “They embrace that, living with the unknown.”

Pyke attended North Saanich Elementary and Parkland High School before graduating from the University of Victoria with a BA in English. It was during her first year at UVic that she realized she wanted to become a filmmaker.

Armed with an MA in political science from York University and a communication studies diploma from Concordia University, the owner-operator of Home and Away Productions has produced and directed dozens of award-winning projects worldwide, including Rodeo: Life on the Circuit and The Gayest Show Ever, and interviewed subjects from Lou Reed to Stephen King.

“Documentary filmmaking has been a fantastic window on the world for me … but sometimes the best stories are in your backyard,” she said.

“It was really wonderful to be able to make a film in B.C. about two amazing, sparkly little girls that I hope people all over the world will eventually get to see.”

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