As we are gearing up to the US television premiere of Seven Songs for a Long Life, I am caught in an odd no-man’s land, not quite in Jordan, not yet in Khartoum, not in the US, nor in Scotland, but suspended in time because of delayed flights and missed connections.
I’m travelling with Tom Browne from the UK, who directed Radiator, a fiction based on his parents’ final years. It is clever curation from the fledgling Sudan Independent Film Festival, which has brought us together to run workshops for film-makers this week: we both use film to explore what we find most difficult to approach: end of life, our human mortality.
We spiral deeper into the questions of performance vs presence; story as catharsis or diversion, the necessary skills of old age. We have hours to prepare, under the all night neon of Heathrow and Amman and Khartoum airports. We come up with a list of film scenes we will show to prompt group workshops. Tom’s film is a stark look at an old age no-one would choose. The intelligent, autocratic, psychiatrist father in the film refused to leave the living room couch, lashing out against any offers of help. The mother became an impotent carer, scorned for trying. The film ratchets up a tension which is hard to achieve in documentary: built from glances, landscapes, moments of rage and cruelty, intercut with tenderness and beauty. The isolated house, and the immense space around it offer both breathing space and a reminder that there are alternatives.
One of the questions we will explore is how old age changes who we are. How do we live when we can’t live our life? The father in Tom’s film could no longer inhabit his character (powerful, controlling) or his job ( high status, being in charge of other’s destiny). But he was also not willing to adapt. So he became an ever more scathing controller of a world that shrank to his couch. It’s hard to watch, and utterly compelling. Seven Songs for a Long Life asks the same question, and charts the different answers lived by choosing to embrace a new identity (Iain, Dorene, Julie) or by focusing only on what is still possible from the old (Tosh, who refused to admit his cancer, and focused only on singing his way to the end).
Roll on our workshop: Reflecting Mortality: two approaches. We want the participants to have the experience of using a creative process to explore one of the questions we have both been pondering through our films. It’s a bit like making a documentary: we don’t know what we will get but hope for surprise and pleasure and gusts of new understanding. I’ll keep you posted!