One of the movies screened at the Grand River Film Festival in May was A Beautiful Death, which won the You Only Die Once #YODO contest held in partnership by Hospice Waterloo Region and the GRFF. It called for local artists to create short, non-documentary films about death and living well until death.
Brian Douglas, social worker and local photographer, won first place with his film, which felt like
a personal tribute to the author’s family and featured shots of his loved ones and home gathered over time. But it also seems to stray from the typical North American perspective of death. Even the name itself makes the viewer ask: how can death be beautiful?
“In North American culture, death is sort of a taboo topic… But I think there are lots of other cultures who ’do’ death better than we do,” Douglas said.
“There are cultures who honour their loved ones in a more open, more community-based way. We tend to try and kind of move on, whereas in other cultures or countries…it’s much more public and much more recognized. It’s much more integrated into their everyday life,” Douglas said. “And it’s ironic, because death is one of the few inevitabilities in life, yet it’s something people are very reluctant to talk about.”
In Western culture, there is a belief that conversations around dying, death and grief must be sombre and sorrowful. Although death can be sad and uncomfortable, Douglas wanted the film to resonate with viewers and spark new conversations. For him, it did not need to be a heavy film.
In his role as a social worker, Douglas provides support during and after traumatic events, and often faces conversations around grief, death and dying. He has a lot of firsthand experience in navigating those conversations.
“It doesn’t mean that it’s not incredibly difficult, but at the same time, I know what I need to do for those people and families to get them through that time,” Douglas said.
While the theme of the script was within his comfort zone, the artistic aspect of creating the film proved challenging. He also had to use stock footage for the few shots that showed social gatherings, as creating them was not possible with COVID-19 restrictions.
“It’s incredible how many hours are spent on five minutes of film…There were definitely moments where I felt stuck,” Douglas said.
“I really wished I could have created that in my backyard or something…But it was part of a learning curve for me, accepting that it’s okay to use footage that’s been created and put out to the world for these specific purposes, if it helps tell the story you want to tell,” he said.
The film features Douglas’ own footage of familiar landscapes and buildings. Like his photography capturing Waterloo Region’s industrial heritage, the film merges the concepts of family and community, in the wider sense of the word.
“I want the film to generate future conversations, whether it’s after people watch it at the film festival or later, on YouTube,” Douglas said. “They can even have those conversations around the dinner table, with their friends, family or partners.”
With its beautiful shots and unusual, gentle atmosphere, Douglas’s film gives viewers a chance to talk about death in a different light and is an invitation to look for new approaches to some of the most difficult conversations.