Why make films about death?
I absolutely love making films. I've worked in a lab, teasing apart the cellular basis of life and written a book about the brain but the act of capturing real life, then editing it to create a story reigns supreme. And, while it's lovely to get paid to make films, there are some I do purely for love, out of curiosity. I wanted to share a personal behind the scenes about one of those films now...
My first vivid memory is of death... Like the memory of a memory, it appears as fractured scenes. My mother and I are at home, by the front door, in the hall. Like a nightmare, the memory feels darker than it should. Or brighter. Bent over to bring our faces together and through an endless river of tears, my mother is explaining to me that my grandfather, her father, is dead.
I do not recall feeling sadness. It was terror. Too young to care about any other living entity, the fact my mother had lost her father made no impact. Instead, awareness flooded into me, a dark knowledge that my precious little life could, in fact, be snuffed out by some unseen, unstoppable force. And then I screamed, ‘I don’t want to die!’, over and over, like a mantra to Death, hoping it would hear me over the sobs of my mother, take pity on this poor child and leave me to eternally play with my toys in a world filled with love and light.
Death has always roamed my thoughts. A silent companion encouraging me to eat well, not to smoke, to run, to look both ways at roads… It’s probably what nudged me to study the very essence of life, the biochemistry that drives our cells as they wage war on entropy, on death.
This fascination with death grew into a healthy love of horror. Of zombies, demons and serial killers that gave a shape and form to death. That turned death into a foe with a face you could battle and, on occasion, defeat. In its brilliantly urgent and visceral way, horror was the first time I realised death could be conquered. It’s in this tension between the living and not living that I’ve found my creative home. From the metabolic processes igniting the smallest of cells to the orchestrated symphony of synaptic pathways generating what we feel as imagination or love.
And this may be the only life there is. On Earth, it is ubiquitous, abundant, verdant and gloriously out of control. It is viral, bacterial, photosynthetic and metabolic. It has teeth and limbs and gills and wings – it soars.
My calling is to create films that simultaneously act as a reminder of life’s magnificence while acknowledging its impermanence.
As far as we know, life on this planet may be all there is in the Universe. It’s so easy to forget, in the midst of headlines, apps and emails just how rare and precious this all is. My calling is to create films that simultaneously act as a reminder of life’s magnificence while acknowledging its impermanence. That highlight the greatness we can aspire to in the face of our own fleeting lifetime – hope in the absence of hope.
The first film I made a genuine attempt to span these worlds was, ‘Until’, a short documentary exploring mortality, immortality and the science of ageing. At the heart of the film sits a single question, if science becomes so advanced you could choose your own lifespan, at what age would you choose to die?
Filled with heart, humour and some beautifully honest insights supplied by scientists, children and the elderly, it’s still one of my favourites and received an ‘Audience Award’ at the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York.
More recently, this fascination with life’s finite nature expressed itself as an obsession with the fabric and perceptions of time. The indie films I make are largely experiments – an attempt to understand people, subjects and filmmaking at a deeper level. And so, with The Horologist, I was allowed to delve into the world of watchmaking, an ongoing fascination, while probing the watchmaker for his more philosophical thoughts regarding human behaviour and time.
This led me to wonder how those aware of their own mortality might view time and, in turn, this curiosity steered me back to Living Well Dying Well (LWDW), an organisation I’d made a short film with before. LWDW supports and trains ‘End of Life Doulas’, remarkable people who help those aware of their own mortality – and their families – navigate their dwindling time on Earth in the best possible way.
We are bad at death. I’m not sure my ability to ‘deal’ with death has advanced terrifically since my grandfather vanished. Death lands like a tornado, indiscriminately destroys our world, casts aside those that we love and moves on, leaving emotional devastation. End of Life Doulas can transform the tornado into a gentle breeze, a celebration of the past, of the now, of the end.
They introduced me to Peter, a wonderful man living with heart failure. Together, we explored the mysteries of time and life as his parrot eyed me silently, begrudging my time with his master. Peter, a former policeman, had long retired and now spent his remaining days painting. He paints his dreams, he paints his imagination and he paints scenes from his lives…
One painting, The Life I Lived, revealed a chronological tapestry of his life. From birth to death these memories-as-art formed delicate bubbles of moments highlighting key events from his time on Earth. Then he floored me by casually showing me its artistic partner, The Life I Didn’t Live, also the title of the short film I made. The manifestation of his love fulfilled, regrets undone and lost dreams found. It was striking in its purity of heart.
Shortly after meeting Peter, LWDW contacted me to introduce me to another person living with the knowledge of their own mortality. Which is how I met the artist, Barbara Bird, beginning an all too brief friendship and journey towards death and beyond. But that's a story for another time.
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