People ask me why did I take on this challenging subject — mortality? Close friends ask me. I even ask myself. After my last PBS series on Forgiveness that took me around the world, from the killing fields in Rwanda, to reconciliation trials in Liberia, to adultery sessions in Santa Barbara, I had promised myself that I would find a relaxing, small, happy subject — ideally one that I could shoot in my living room.
But instead, here I am with another big idea, primal and universal.
Perhaps the simplest explanation is that I am of an age — midlife — when mortality presses in on me. Close friends have died and are dying. My beloved close friend and editor of 20 years died in the middle of this production. (the film is dedicated to him) The haunting line of the poet Phillip Larkin became resonant: “Death is the roar underneath everything.“ I felt this ‘roar’ with an urgency I had not experienced before.
I wanted to have the conversation about death and dying that many of us yearn to have but turn away from….until it is too late. This film gave me permission to approach people for whom death had suddenly become real, not abstract. Not far off in the future. To ask rare and intimate questions: How do you live with this knowledge ? What is the story that sustains you? Or has it fallen away at the end? What is of ultimate value? What do you imagine is next? Afterlife? Oblivion? Dissolving into the nether world of energy?
The last three years making this film were unsettling, fascinating, even inspiring.
And surprising as well.
I had assumed — incorrectly — that the audience was my generation, and if younger, it would involve only those who had been touched directly by death. Instead I discovered that there was huge emerging movement of young men and women who were meeting regularly in death salons and death cafes around the world. They crave a new openness and a safe smart place to talk about this taboo subject. Caitlin Doughty, the young woman featured in the opening of my film, is one of the founders of the death salon movement. She speaks brilliantly to her large internet audience as well as to the death salon regulars, and is also a best selling author of two books on the subject. (“Smoke Gets In your Eyes,” and “From Here To Eternity” )
Another surprise was the uncertainty. Few people have their story together. In the words of Gabriel Byrne, the eloquent actor who opens the film: “We are all doubting Thomases at the end.” Atheists as well as believers. Even those who find their narratives of comfort in nature, or art, or science or in the mysteries of the universe. The stories we hold onto in the daylight with fierce certainty can seem like gossamer at 3am.
Of great solace to me — and it came out of the experience of making this film – is my deeper understanding of the power of these stories. However fragile, our need for them endures. Interestingly some of these narratives of comfort seem to offer more solace than others. Not only in how we die, but more important in how we live now as we confront death. Through the hundreds of conversations I had with people who had been shocked into acknowledging their mortality, I discovered that there is comfort simply in knowing that others are up with you late at night, wondering and questioning. In the words of the astrophysicist Adam Frank also featured in the film, “Death is the question beyond all questions.”
On a lighter note, it is somehow fitting that my film should premiere in Austin for it is here, 20 years ago that I discovered in a small downtown bookstore Austin’s great photographer and video artist, Rocky Schenck. Rarely has an artist spoken to me so directly and powerfully. His haunting images are central to the vision of this film. They speak to the mystery of our life and death with poetry and precision. They permeate “Into The Night.” Rocky and I are looking forward to spending time together in his town, and having some Texas fun.
– Helen Whitney, writer/director Into the Night: Portraits of Life and Death
See Into the Night: Portraits of Life and Death on Monday, October 30 at 6:30PM at the State Theatre
Photography by Rocky Schenck
To learn more about Into the Night: Portraits of Life and Death visit: https://www.intothenightdoc.com/
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We are proud to announce this year’s art poster – featuring OH by Rocky Schenck
Purchase your poster at registration!