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ISLAND, filming death and dying by Steven Eastwood

Steven Eastwood is an artist-filmmaker. His new feature documentary ISLAND is a reflection on the phenomena of dying, observing the last days and hours of life and the moment of death.  Ahead of the UK cinema release of the film in mid-September, he discusses the process of working ethically with people at the end of their lives, and considers what images of death we have, and what images we might have…

 

As I researched and developed the film Island I soon realised that we are poorly educated as to what happens as we die, and that there are very few accounts of dying within our culture, particularly visual or in moving image. This is why I set out - to some extent as a provocation - to be witness to the moment of death, because I felt that this was taboo still, certainly taboo if the image didn’t originate from a familial relationship, like a partner or a sibling filming a loved one. It is as though the image of dying is not something we should see, or even want to see. I wanted to ask, why is death taboo, given that it happens every day and is as natural an event as birth? I was curious to discover where we have got to as a society, in terms of openness and awareness of the end of life. The challenge I faced was how to create a space where dying and death can be given images. How might filmmaker and subject visually confront this event and represent it, so that the outcome is perceived as morally justifiable in its gaze at what is normally regarded as forbidden?

It was the team and leadership at Mountbatten Hospice on the Isle of Wight that made such a seemingly risky proposition possible.  Over one year between 2015-16 I filmed people at the very end of their lives. Like many other hospices, it is hidden in the suburbs, gently challenging stigma still, from the outside, but within its walls delivering incredible care and enabling life to be lived fully, until it stops. Introductions to the idea of filming the end of life were first made in my absence, by members of the community team on home visits to patients, across this beautiful and otherworldly archipelago. It turns out it is more straight forward to film with people at this sensitive time than it is to convince exhibitors and festival programmers to take on a film which features the moment of death. But if you understand the central tenet of the hospice movement, which is the rights of the patient to live and die in the way they see fit, with dignity, inclusion, and as best as possible without pain, then this becomes less surprising.  And if you think participating in a film would be far from your wish list when you have a terminal illness, think again. For some, knowing that there is limited time can bring things into focus. And filmmaking can be a remarkably open and unorthodox space.

 

 

In Island, four extraordinary people experience the year in which their lives will end. Illness progresses, relationships gently shift, and the films bears witness to rarely seen and intensely private moments. Alan had a deep philosophy of life, death, his own body, that he wanted to share, and I believe the film enabled him to do that, at 88, during the last months of his life. Alan invited me to be with him when he died and I feel very privileged to say that I was. In order for this to be possible I had to be named as Alan’s next of kin in his medical notes. I got the call early one morning and raced to the south coast and on to the ferry. I spent two days continuously filming Alan as his life came to an end, and this is an experience I will never forget. Jamie was very different, closer to my age, newly married and with a four year-old daughter, surrounded by family and friends in shock. Nobody wanted him to die. This community came together for an extraordinary fund-raiser party, so that Jamie could go on one last weekend away with his family, to a caravan park on the island.  The film became a safe space for him to directly address what he was facing.  If Alan is the film’s mind, then Jamie is its raucous, visceral humour, and its beating heart. Then there was Mary, so delightful, but isolated, in her endless measured coffee spoon afternoons, and Roy, slipping away in the middle of a split between his brother and boyfriend.  Everyone has accumulated fascinating and different stories, but we are all the same eventually, we all touch, feel, breathe, curl into an end.

 

As I made the film, it became clear to me that the person with a terminal diagnosis is denied a certain kind of participation in our culture and because of this they are denied an image. Their representation is guarded, protected, and often without consulting the person going through the illness. Denying that person an image is surely also contributing to how they are repressed in our culture. The images we have are limited, limited by access and also by aesthetics. The descriptions we do have (in fiction, nonfiction and artists film) tend to be medicalised, euphemistic, or metaphoric. I wanted to ask whether there can be an ethics of aesthetics. The film features visual remarks, like pans and tilts and a strong colour palette, that reflect the strangeness and beauty of the situation. It also states that a filmmaker is present. There is an artist’s point of view. This is not a clinical, detached, disassociated eye, nor is it the diaristic eye of the close relative or loved one. This is an eye that looks, and then moves. Things like a focus pull or a pan across a bed can be tactile, attentive, rather than objectifying. I wanted to see if it was possible to give direct attention to the end of life beyond metaphor and euphemism, because we continue to fear that seeing the image of a person who is dying or who has died will burn us, but it doesn’t. We fear proximity to death will change us, depress us, forge lasting negative associations with people we love. But it doesn’t.

What was it like and how did I feel, when Alan died? I felt elated. I saw that death is beautiful, unspeakable and strange. It is as though life is an engine, turning over, stalling then stopping, the person already vacated, just the body living, until it no longer can. I don’t think of the film as being about cancer, or suffering. To my mind it isn’t harrowing or burdensome. I felt uplifted and empowered by the extraordinary events I was fortunate enough to be invited to bear witness to. I hope that something of that feeling of empowerment has translated to the screen.

Steven Eastwood
islandfilm.co.uk

ISLAND will be released at selected cinemas around London and across the UK from Sept 14 2018.