Dr Amy Hardie, head of research at the Scottish Documentary Institute, writes:
I began my filmmaker in residence at Strathcarron Hospice in 2011, in the day care ward. It resulted in a feature documentary, Seven Songs for a Long Life, that launched in the UK in October 2015, during Hospice Care Week.
Film can be a powerful art form to communicate the unsaid, the unspeakable. I began working with people facing bereavement by teaching filmmaking skills within the family group. We created archives of intimate family life, and also a new channel of communication – often wordless, but perhaps even more powerful for the words that remained unsaid. It was intense observation through the camera – as child filmed parent, child filmed sibling, parents filmed each other and their children. We projected these short films on living room walls, and watched the recognition as families recognised how much they meant to each other.
I hadn’t known that hospices work so much with people in their own homes. They come into the hospice one day a week to have their medications monitored, meet with doctors, nurses, occupational and complementary therapists and physiotherapists and to have relaxation classes, beauty treatments and a three-course lunch.
It quickly became apparent that a focus on creating memories for later was uppermost on parents’ minds:
“My family really liked it. I think secretly they know that they can still have Mum on it when I’m not here.“
A nurse watching the process noted:
It’s a marvelous comforter for the relative to have because they’ve got it always…. it enables them to say things that they’ve probably never said the rest of their life. …”
As time passed, patients became more and more interested in the process of filmmaking itself. We followed an intensely iterative process: we would talk, bounce ideas around, I would film, screen the rushes back, edit, screen the edited short, then plan the next bit of filming. This process allowed patients a great deal of creative control over the filming process, and the results surprised us all. They had begun to access the camera’s potential as a tool for self-exploration at this very tender, very uncertain time of life.
It began as a process of acceptance:
When I saw myself, the camera doesn’t lie. I hadn’t really seen myself like that until I saw it on film. And, in a way I thought it was quite good because well, it’s like an acceptance. You’ve just got to accept it.
Very quickly, the patients grasped the potential of the camera to create small movies that delighted audiences. And the patients singing, encouraged by a skilled nurse, Mandy Malcomson, produced much of the pleasure of the short films.
Over time, the way that patients used the songs changed. In the beginning songs were used as a distraction from illness, from the experience of being a patient. The performances were a way of proving to themselves and those around them that they were more than ‘patients’: that they were still people with dreams and desires. But after their first song, each patient began to use the camera to talk more or less openly about death.
As Marjory Mackay, Clinical Director of Strathcarron notes of the patients:
They possess certain knowledge – that a particular illness with which they have been labelled and whose assault they have felt deeply, will shape and shorten their life and will most likely expedite their death. Their hopes and dreams and all that we ordinarily take for granted about’ our tomorrows’ have been dashed. They have come face to face with the reality of their own mortality.
Their stories, as they began to express them, were varied and extraordinary – as perhaps all life stories are when we can take the time to get to know them. Iain’s story is about whether he can adapt to daily pain and accept the shocking changes to his body. Tosh never does, and that works well for him, resolute denial and diversion as a way of living in the moment.
Some stories were entirely unpredictable: Julie was a young single mother who has always loved dancing, but been too shy to dance in public. Iain was a DJ who used to get a crowd of 3000 on their feet at Tiffany’s in Leeds. When they met at the hospice, Iain chose music for her, and as Julie started to dance again, she gained the confidence to get the whole ward dancing.
The patients utilised the inherent creativity of an art form as flexible as film to develop their self-expression. Their renewal of a sense of self as a person, able to create and contribute pleasure and value, became the most important element in our collaborative process.
It’s not just a one-way thing – we appreciate getting help but we also like to help people as well. Even though we’re not well, we can always do something for other people…It’s terrific.
The intensity with which this was grasped is an indication of one of the dangers of being a patient in palliative care: the increasing reliance on other people, being constantly seen as in need of care, as a recipient, rather than a contributor. In the final third of the film, the patients have chosen songs to express their surrender to, or continued battle with death. The duet between the nurse Mandy and Nikki is an astonishing and vibrantly emotional expression of Nikki’s survival after days of pain. As Marjory Mackay observes:
By drawing us into their world of living while dying, they teach us what is possible if we embrace the tension of living in the knowledge that we are dying. There is no room for procrastination! But there is space for hope, for cherishing everything that we have and focusing on the things that matter most. The irony is that if we acknowledge that our days are numbered – even if we don’t know the actual number – it changes what we do and how we see everyone, everything, today and in the future.
Seven songs is screening at the following venues in the coming weeks:
- London – Tuesday 1st December, Regent Cinema
- Edinburgh – Saturday 12th December, Filmhouse
- Glasgow – Sunday 13th December, Glasgow Buddist Centre
Dr Amy Hardie is head of research at the Scottish Documentary Institute. A documentary film-maker with several international awards. Her documentary feature The Edge of Dreaming, was the first Scottish feature documentary to be selected for competition at IDFA in 2009 and was awarded the Grand Jury Prize, Kiev International Film Festival. She graduated from the National Film and Television School in 1990 with the BP Expo prize for best student documentary (Kafi’s Story).
Dr Hardie’s research interests include close collaborative work with research scientists and health professionals. She directed and produced six films with the Centre for Regenerative Medicine at Edinburgh University, including Stem Cell Revolutions (Tam Dalyell medal, and Best Documentary Milan). After a year spent as film-maker in residence in Strathcarron Hospice, she received BBC and international finance to direct the feature documentary: Seven Songs for a Long Life, which opens in UK cinemas from October 2nd 2015.