The Last Rite, a documentary film I produced and worked on for over a year, is finally finished. It will air on OMNI TV, Canada's multi-cultural network, this fall. The project is one I am particularly proud of because it's on a topic I hope will lead viewers to ask themselves the all-important questions on death and dying, a subject most of us would rather postpone for another day.
The concept for the film came about as so many things do, over a discussion on life while drinking a glass of wine with a friend in Toronto. This friend had just done me a huge favour and I wanted to thank her by taking her out for a meal. What I realized almost immediately when we got to the restaurant was that she was depressed or grieving (her father had passed away a few months prior) or both, and it shocked me to see her so different from the vivacious lady I knew her to be.
Over mussles and french fries we continued our philosophical discussion, covering everything from children (mine are grown, hers are barely of school age) to our lifestyles, work and future goals. Towards the end of the meal she opened up about her father's death and how difficult it had been for her to repress her true grief, which by all accounts would have been messy given her passionate, demonstrative Italian nature, as opposed to the more sedate kind of grieving she felt was required of her and which seems to be the North American norm.
This led to a tearful but in-depth discussion about the different cultural traditions there are and how important that last send-off is to the living who are mourning and feeling bereft. Being very familiar with loss both on a personal level as well as through my work with the elderly, I was comfortable discussing the topic of death with my friend and providing her with the neutrality she needed to express her true feelings. Her biggest beef about her father's funeral, she confessed, was that she felt she had been rushed through it at a time when she was numb and unable to come up with an alternative option. Was it like that for everyone and what other venues might she have explored?
It's true that funerals of a by-gone era were more hands-on and therefore more personal. You easily identified mourners by the black clothes they wore, you often would know who the funeral cortege driving down the street was for and would stop on the sidewalk to pay silent respects to that fallen member of your community. You would bring food to surviving spouses, you would offer a few words of comfort, often wiping your own tears in the process without any shame. This, of course, was the era when elderly people were mostly kept at home and the process of dying happened in a back bedroom with family members taking turns sitting by the sick bed, not in the sterile environment of a hospital or institution. We remembered simpler times with a bit of nostalgia as we sipped our glass of merlot.
"Why don't you turn your experience into a film?" I asked her towards the end of the evening, knowing that her healing would start with the process of writing it all down.
It took months to get the proposal written and picked up by a network but it was worth the wait. The ensuing one hour documentary is visually exquisite, thoughtfully written and edited with both modern precision and old-fashioned sensitivity. I owe the entire team a huge debt of gratitude but more than that, I feel honoured to have worked with a group of such talented people who understood from the get-go that this was a personal journey, not just for my friend but, as it turned out, for all of us.
From the amazing Director of Photography to the talented composer who created the haunting refrain of The Last Rite, from the editor who gave up many of her evenings and weekends and the Italian translator who helped us get that second version of the film done in the nick of time, I am grateful for the contributions of everyone.
The topic, death, is one we all need to get comfortable with and seeking an answer to the question, what is the key to experiencing a so-called good death , should not be constantly postponed.
Monday, August 17, 2009
Thursday, August 6, 2009
The little girl holds her grandmother's hand tightly. They cross the street but it is so wide they only make it to the meridian in the middle. Cars rush by, horns honk and people run across zig zagging between moving cars. The grandmother seems confused by all the noise. She looks around as though lost and cannot focus. The little girl begins to feel frightened. She doesn't know the way home. But she begins to recognize some of the landmarks and takes stock, just in case. There is the red church across the street and the tree that stands on the corner is one she has seen before. Looking around some more, she sees the curve in the street where the bus stops. She waits for her grandmother to cross the other half of the road with her and then she starts to pull her towards that bus stop. The grandmother is licking her lips now, gazing intently into the distance as though trying to see something beyond the horizon. The little girl chirps up that once they are on the bus they just have to remember where to get off. The grandmother clutches her purse tightly with her right arm. It is a brown purse with beige stitching and a metal clasp in the middle. The little girl will never forget that purse, not even when she is a grown woman and her poor old grandmother has become a memory. They stand near the curb watching cars zip by them. Eventually the little girl sees the bus in the distance and she tells the grandmother that she should take out her money so they can pay. There are other people waiting in line now and the bus is coming nearer. The grandmother opens her purse and takes out her wallet. She has to let go of the girl's hand to do this. So afraid is the little one of losing sight of her that she grabs a fistful of her elder's skirt in her sweaty little hand. The bus approaches, stripped gears making a horrible noise, belching black smoke behind it. The little girl and her grandmother board last after everyone else in order for the girl to stay close to the driver so that she can ask him to stop if she recognizes their street. Someone rises and offers his seat to the grandmother and smiles at the girl. The door finally closes and the driver makes the bus shudder forward, back into the traffic, back where they had come from, the little girl still clutching her grandmother's skirt.