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A Burlington Filmmaker Documents the Art of Dying

State of the Arts


Published June 6, 2007 at 2:31 p.m.

Talking about death can be difficult. We may enjoy watching mobsters get whacked on "The Sopranos," but contemplating the end of our own lives - or those of our loved ones - is scary.

Unfortunately, our reluctance to discuss end-of-life issues can make dying an isolating and even more painful experience for patients and their families.

So how do you prompt people to confront their fears of aging and death? In her new documentary, Holding Our Own: Embracing the End of Life, Burlington filmmaker Camilla Rockwell, 56, uses art and music to ease audiences into these conversations.

Rockwell's hour-long film, which debuted on DVD in April, will play twice next week at Champlain College. It profiles Williamsville fabric artist Deirdre Scherer, who stitches intimate portraits of people nearing death, and chronicles the work of the Brattleboro-based hospice chorus Hallowell. This is not feel-good, date-movie stuff - if you go, bring tissues.

Scherer's art makes some people squirm, and Rockwell bravely delves into that discomfort. The film begins with footage of an art opening in New York City, where gallery-goers stare warily at the wrinkled, slack-jawed faces of the elderly. The subjects are often surrounded by medical instruments, or by grieving friends and family.

Rockwell focuses right in on viewers' reactions to the art. A security guard tells the camera, "I hate death. I hate it. We don't want to experience it and we don't want to face facts, but it's reality." Another man says that one image "really conveys a depressing feeling."

Despite those qualms, Rockwell manages to make Holding Our Own an empowering film about "reclaiming" the end of life. She goes behind the scenes with Scherer, showing how the artist interacts with the individuals and families she portrays and letting her describe the beauty she finds in elderly faces.

Rockwell also follows Hallowell as the group performs for hospice patients. During one concert, she zooms in on a member who is crouching next to a woman's wheelchair and singing to her. The elderly woman gently reaches over and pats the singer's hand mid-song, as if to thank her. It's an emotional moment, and the singer falters slightly.

But Hallowell founder Kathy Leo explains that their singing isn't steeped in sadness. "Often," she says, "we leave feeling really joyful . . . which is one of the things I've learned more and more about this work, that there is a place for celebration and joy in our grief work."

Rockwell, a hospice volunteer who sings with Burlington's Noyana hospice chorus, first became interested in making the film after someone suggested she document Scherer's art. The filmmaker, who has known Leo for years, quickly saw a connection between the artist's and the chorus' approaches to death.

Rockwell's film cost $100,000 to make and was financed mainly through grants - including $25,000 from Paul Newman. "He gives out money," she declares. "All that salad-dressing stuff is true."

Rockwell is encouraged by the response from the medical community: Holding Our Own has already been shown to oncology nurses at Stanford Medical Center and to hospice workers in Seattle. The film has also entered the world of indie film fests, such as this spring's Green Mountain Film Festival in Montpelier. The Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College will show it in August, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is interested in a fall screening.

Recognition from cinéastes is welcome, but Rockwell says she's been most pleased to hear that people who watch Holding Our Own are sharing it with their friends and family. Some say it gives them a way to talk about death and dying. "That was my intention with the film," she says, "to get people to talk about this subject. And not to be afraid."