Dying and The Documentary Studio
Thinking about death is something most people wish to avoid. When it will strike, in what form, whether painful and long drawn out, swift and merciful or a process with which one might even be reconciled, few can know. Many people unconsciously hold to the belief that they will not die. Our culture of virtual reality is marked so deeply by the abstraction of death that many have never seen a dead person. Yet, as people live longer and longer, our research shows a real hunger in people to know more about an event that has been more successfully postponed for many than ever before. If facing death directly may not lead us to fully master the fear of death, it may at least permit the fear to be managed.
There has also been a long struggle in the medical profession about how best to care for the dying. Some believe in exercising any and all measures to keep the patient alive – at whatever cost in pain and drastic surgery. Others hold that once the outcome of death is clear, the primary task is to ease the passage of those whose time has come.
This debate could be part of the film; it has been fiercely fought for a decade and more. But it is clear, at least in the filmmakers’ view, that palliative care will become the accepted modality and that little new can be added to the debate. Therefore we have taken palliative care as both a given and as a particularly good venue in which to explore the experience of dying.
The filmmakers believe that, while instruction is often a prelude to knowledge, the most effec-tive way of learning is from actual experience. In this case, obviously, it cannot be done directly. But by projecting oneself into the life and death of another, one may achieve insight in an especially affecting and illuminating way.
The process involves a camera and a sound person working with subjects who wish to share the experience in which they are absorbed. The filmmakers must have the wisdom to be non-judgemental and non-directive, taking great time and patience, permitting their subjects to ex-press themselves in the actual events and actions of their life with their fellows: no interviews no narration. The film must be permitted to direct itself. The filmmakers’ task is to be as faithful as humanly possible to the spirit of those they record. We call it actuality drama.
It is demanding of all the participants – subjects and filmmakers alike. Certain pre-conditions are requisite. A clear agreement as to the subject of the film and the process by which it is to be explored is essential. The experience shared must be felt to be of significant benefit both to those taking part and to those who see the film. Experience shared and the insight gained is the goal and reward.
It is the inhumanity of death that terrifies people and at the heart of the terror lays the fear of the unknown. To move intimately into the last experience of life may offer the only real prospect of humanizing the inevitable. In being able to project oneself into the end of life of another, one may achieve insight into what is perhaps the most human event we experience.