Death comes to all of us, but remains a taboo subject for many people. Three Flemish documentary filmmakers have ventured into this sensitive territory and emerged with striking films about the end of life. They discuss the challenges of documenting death.
Text Ian Mundell
All three filmmakers had personal reasons for beginning their projects. 'When I was very young I was scared of death,' says Maris De Smedt, whose film Claire, Me and My Brother follows the last months of a teenage girl. 'I would wake up worried about when I was going to die, and worry if my heart was still beating. I wanted to make a film about being confronted with death, so that perhaps I could live with another idea of it in the future.'
Similar anxieties motivated Nathalie Basteyns, whose film Still is about suicide. 'As a child I always feared that someone I loved would go away,' she recalls. 'Suicide was even worse, because I think it is a very lonely act.'
For Manno Lanssens the impetus came from seeing his grandmother's difficult final year. 'It was not a very nice way to die, so I asked myself: is there a good way to die? And that was the start of the project.' His documentary Epilogue, which received its world première at Visions du Réel in Nyon, follows a woman with terminal cancer as she spends her last months at home, surrounded by her family.
The first challenge for each filmmaker was to find someone facing death, or touched by it in the most traumatic way, who was willing to go in front of the camera. 'I spent months and months without any result, despite having good contacts in support organisations,' says Lanssens. 'I met people who were ill and who wanted to participate, but then the family was very strongly opposed.'
Finally, working on a TV programme taking stock of Belgium's euthanasia law, he met Neel Couwels and her family. Not only were they willing to take part, but they were facing Neel's illness in a very positive way. 'I didn't want it to be morbid,' says Lanssens. 'I wanted to have life around this sick person, to have that contrast.'
A life-affirming attitude in the face of death was also what drew De Smedt to the Geudens family. The three children were non-identical triplets, with Claire and Michelle both struggling with severe cystic fibrosis, while Vincent was free of the disease. 'I was intrigued by the optimism of the two girls and I felt I wanted to know them better,' she says.
She read a newspaper interview in which the girls talked about turning 18 and looking forward to being 19, so she proposed a film that would follow them through that year, come what may. At this point Claire had already gone through two unsuccessful lung transplants and could not expect a third. 'I knew that she might die during the making of the film, but not how fast.'
Basteyns meanwhile was looking for the families of young people who had committed suicide. One came through a support organisation, another through her producer, Kaat Beels. One had lost a son, Freek, 10 years previously, the other a daughter, Eva, barely a year before. In some respects this difference in time can be seen in the film, but in others time seems to have stood still. Finally, she included Stefaan Maene, a former Olympic swimmer who had written about attempting suicide.
She was careful to tell the families that she didn't want to discuss how their children had killed themselves. 'When you read tabloid accounts of suicide it's the first thing they say, but I didn't want to do that. I even didn't ask them about it.'
Setting limits in this way was even more important for the films made with dying people and their families. 'Sometimes moments are really intimate,' Lanssens says, 'and I always told them: "You have the power. If you tell us to stop, I will stop the camera and there will be no discussion." But that never happened.'
And while the idea was to document Neel's death, the decision to film right up to her last breath was only taken as her illness advanced. 'In the end it was almost a natural thing for me to be there, because we had been through it with them from the beginning. I didn't feel like a voyeur.'
De Smedt also set out to film Claire throughout her illness. Claire agreed, but on her own terms. 'When she was really sick in the beginning she would ask us not to film her because she didn't look good. She was really proud. She wanted to be beautiful for the camera.' The decision to cut away when the final moment came was taken by the filmmaker herself. 'If I'd wanted to film her last breath, I think Claire and the family would have said yes, but it was a taboo for me.'
Throughout the film she was careful not to sensationalise, choosing a discrete camera style. 'I didn't want to film her very close up in the hospital. I wanted to be a fly on the wall,' she explains. Instead, a more intimate view is provided by Michelle's video diary. 'I knew she would be the one who would tell the story. I didn't want to do it, and Claire couldn't.' Basteyns also drew on personal images, including video and photographs taken by Eva before she killed herself. There are also scenes that recall Maene's career as a swimmer, but these contrast sharply with the stillness of the interviews. 'I decided at the beginning that I didn't want moving images. Because everything in their lives has stopped, I wanted everything still.'
Lanssens found the visual side challenging, since everything had to be filmed in the family home. 'I wanted an image that was very intimate. I wanted us to be part of this family. At the same time I didn't want images that were too dark, so we have worked a bit on the colours.
'Unusually in documentary making, some of the subjects were invited into the editing room. 'I said: "if there is something that you don't want in it, say so and I'll take it out",' Basteyns recalls. 'They laid their lives open, and this is really a taboo, so I thought they needed to have the choice.' In the end, there were no objections.
Lanssens also consulted Neel's family, and found them concerned with small, practical details rather than the bigger issues. 'They see it a completely different way, they are not just spectators. They have been through it.'
Spending so long with death is not without its cost for the filmmakers. 'I was able to cope with this situation for such a long time because I was making a film,' Lanssens says. 'It puts you in a position where you don't focus on the dying but on the technical side of things.' Even so, his cameraman couldn't go through with shooting Neel's final moments and a replacement had to be found.
De Smedt started out doing interviews, sound and camera work all on her own, but eventually brought in an assistant. 'In the beginning it was OK, but after a while the theme became so heavy that I needed someone to talk to.'
But there was also a positive side to the experience. 'It has made me more aware of death, but also of life,' says Lanssens. De Smedt agrees. 'Now I want to enjoy every minute of life. I don't complain too much, because there isn't time.'
Despite the sometimes dark subject matter, all three directors want their films to have a positive message. 'At the beginning the film I wanted to make was about loss and grief, but it turns out to be a film about courage and surviving,' says Basteyns.