Viewfinder Magazine

We Need to Talk About Dying
by Joe Levenson

This article first appeared in ViewFinder 92

Although someone in Britain dies every minute, many people risk missing out on having their end of life wishes met, and leaving a mess behind for those close to them because of a reluctance to talk about dying, death and bereavement. That’s why the Dying Matters Coalition was set up in 2009 by the National Council for Palliative Care With a fast growing membership, which currently stands at 30,000, including charities, care homes, hospices, funeral directors and individuals, Dying Matters is at the forefront of changing attitudes and behaviour around dying.

Dying Matters has found film to be a particularly useful medium. Whether it has been through thought-provoking short films or light hearted explorations of the role of humour, our films have been an instrumental part of our strategy to challenge social attitudes and encourage a more open approach to discussing death.

The first short film that we produced, A Party for Kath, set out to expose the lack of communication that exists around death and to highlight how planning for death can have a positive impact. The film, which was awarded “highly commended” at the 2010 International Visual Communications Association (IVCA) Clarion Awards, was well scripted and humorous, with the Canon 5D giving it a cinematic quality.

In a similar vein, we produced two further films, Dying to Know and I didn’t want thatDying to Know, which was selected for the Cannes Short Film corner in 2012, began life as a theatre play.  The screenplay, written by Helen Reading, Director of the Red Tie Theatre Company on the Isle of Wight, was adapted into a film by Flix Films starring the original cast following their successful UK tour. The thirty-minute film explores family dynamics and the different needs which can arise when a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal condition. Filmed entirely on location on the Isle of Wight and with the support of Earl Mountbatten Hospice, local businesses and residents, many of whom came on board as extras, the film has been invaluable in raising public awareness and training healthcare professionals.

Flix Films, also produced I didn’t want that, a short drama which looks at the consequences of not making your end of life wishes clear. Taking five real life scenarios, the film strives to act as a catalyst to encourage conversations including about care, resuscitation, leaving a will and planning for a funeral. It was shot over four days in five locations and involved a seven strong film crew, twelve main cast, a professional film dog and twenty-five extras to form a funeral congregation with a bit of a difference (which happened to consist of professional drag queens from the musical Priscilla and the odd penguin!). Flix Films chose to film in a real life hospital and church, involving the community connected to each venue in the production. The drama was primarily filmed on a Cannon 5D Mkii camera for its versatility and cinematic qualities, with a Cannon 7D also deployed to utilise its 60 frames per second feature to create a seamless slow motion effect.  It was this attention to equipment (Flix Films also used a track and dolly, jib, shoulder rig and Zeiss prime lenses) alongside the expertise of the film crew, which ensured the strength of the message was matched by the high standards of the production.  As with Dying to Know, it has recently been selected for the Cannes Short Film Corner 2013.

... humour has played a role in several of our short films

Humour has played a role in several of our short films, a deliberate tactic to engage and break down traditional barriers to thinking about dying. This approach can best be seen in Dying for a Laugh, a PictureWise productions film for Dying Matters Awareness Week 2011, which went on to win two Public Services Communications Awards  (the Best Low Budget Campaign and the Best Use of Video). Supported and funded by Bolton Dying Matters, the film features comedians Ardal O'Hanlon, Jenny Eclair, Dave Spikey, Ricky Tomlinson, Shappi Khorsandi and consultant physician-turned-comic Kevin Jones tackling dying - the biggest taboo of them all. Joking, reflecting and ultimately considering their own deaths, the comedians wanted their involvement to encourage others to talk more openly about death. The film, which has been watched by thousands of people at events as well as online, has been an invaluable way of using humour to reach out to and engage with people of all ages on an issue which whilst sensitive, does not always have to be discussed sombrely.

Dying for a Laugh was so effective that we followed it up in 2012 with Last Laugh, again produced by PictureWise. In the six-minute film comedian Alexei Sayle talks to four people with a life expectancy of less than a year, discovering how humour helps them to manage their illness and other people’s reactions. Last Laugh has been really well received, and was covered extensively by the media including on BBC Breakfast TV.

Dying Matters’ films have also given prominence to the voices of those who may otherwise not get heard. A wide range of people, including those with life limiting conditions, contributed to Why Dying Matters to Me. Participants speaking directly to camera were encouraged to speak about whatever they wanted to in relation to death, and to start by saying 'Dying Matters to me because ...' Contributors were recruited through members of the Dying Matters Coalition and video diary rooms open to the public were set up at events. This simple powerful film has been widely viewed online and also been extensively used, including at training events for health and care professionals. Other films have focused on getting the voices of hard to reach groups heard, including people with learning disabilities in We are living well but Dying Matters, which was produced by CHANGE. Another powerful short film Open to All?, includes a collection of powerful personal experience from Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people nearing the end of life and those caring for them.

... the use of film has also been indispensible in our work

The use of film has also been indispensible in our work to change the attitudes and behaviour of doctors and care professionals. As part of our work to build the confidence of doctors in talking about dying with their patients, two GP training films have been produced for Dying Matters by Flix Films. How long have I got Doc? features five real life GP-patient conversations. Appreciating the time and budget restrictions currently facing GPs and other health professionals, we designed a resource which was flexible in how it could be viewed; whether as individual scenarios during a weekly meeting or as a complete package for trainers. Throughout each scenario, clear and innovative graphics display learning points, which can be easily adopted by health care professionals. So highly received was this first resource that Dying Matters commissioned a second series Time to talk Doc?, this time looking at the importance of end of life care conversations with people with dementia, their carers and their families.

Integrating film with our online and social media strategy has been a key element of our approach. There have been numerous viewings online of our films, with a 3,000% increase in viewings of our films on YouTube during Dying Matters Awareness Week in 2012 compared with just a year earlier. Key to this growth is not only the commissioning of innovative and thought-provoking films but also investment in social media and the deployment of increasingly sophisticated marketing techniques.

Talking about dying, death and bereavement may still not come easy for many of us, but there are encouraging signs that attitudes are changing and that barriers are being broken down. Experience has also shown us that film can play a unique role in stimulating discussion and debate about a sensitive issue such as dying and the importance making our wishes known before it is too late.

To maximise our reach, the majority of our films are freely available to watch at – where you can also order our films and publications, join the Dying Matters Coalition and find out more about this year’s Dying Matters Awareness Week (13-19 May 2013).

About the author

Joe Levenson is Director of Communications at the Dying Matters Coalition.