NEW YORK – On its face, PBS has a huge challenge in promoting filmmaker Helen Whitney’s upcoming documentary on facing mortality. Most people want to avoid the subject of death, not see a two-hour film about it.
Watching “Into the Night: Portraits of Life and Death” makes clear that it’s a lot more about life.
The film, which premieres on Monday at 9 p.m., features interviews with several thoughtful people for whom death is more than an abstraction. They include an historian whose attitude is changed by a youthful near-death experience, a man with terminal cancer who builds his own coffin, a former Islamic radical who questioned his beliefs about immortality while in solitary confinement and a pastor who struggles to regain faith after the deaths of two sons.
There’s also a filmmaker who doesn’t want to confront the fact that her best friend is dying. That would be Whitney.
“What is it that you most fear?” Whitney said. “I don’t think that people have these conversations. I don’t think they do until the last minutes. It’s not just about being brave at the end. It’s about how you live your life now.”
Whitney’s parents died within three months of each other when she was 12, and she said that influenced many of the choices she made in a film career that has stretched beyond 40 years. She’s taken a special interest in spiritual matters, with projects on how the 2001 terrorist attacks affected people’s religious beliefs, the concept of forgiveness, Mormons and Pope John Paul II.
With “Into the Night,” she wanted to have those conversations. After all, her film says, “there is nothing that we will ever do that feels so alone as dying.” The film is framed by actor Gabriel Byrne reciting Dylan Thomas’ famous poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” to show that when the time comes, some do and some don’t.
Caitlin Doughty’s life changed in fourth grade when she witnessed a young girl fall off an escalator to her death at a shopping center. It stuck with her, and she eventually became a mortician and a leader in the death salon movement, where people gather to talk about mortality. “Death happens, and it can be messy and it can be gross, but it can also be beautiful,” she says.
Phyllis Tickle, the historian who was terminally ill when she talked with Whitney, nearly died in childbirth as a young woman. She had the sensation of moving toward a light and a voice asking if she were ready and she said, no, that she wanted to raise a family with her new husband. She survived. Tickle said she’s aware some people doubt such near-death experiences, considering them some neurological trickery; her husband was among them and didn’t want to talk about it. The film takes no side in the debate.
What the experience did was leave her utterly unafraid of death, which she jokingly hoped would come while sitting on her deck with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in front of her.
“Once the fear of death goes,” she says, “you can’t be afraid of life. You’re a different person.”
Tickle died a few months after speaking to Whitney, as did Jeffrey Piehler, a surgeon with prostate cancer. Together with a friend who was a carpenter, he built his own coffin, a task his family found morbid. Piehler found impending death liberating, enabling him to see “life in Technicolor,” let loose of destructive emotions and enjoy his family.
As Whitney searched for people to talk to and conducted interviews for the film, she worked as usual with Ted Winterburn. Technically her film editor, Winterburn was a partner who helped shape the direction of Whitney’s projects. But at 80 years old, Winterburn was dying himself of prostate cancer. It was a subject that largely went unspoken between the two.
“I didn’t make it easy for us to talk about because at some level I was not accepting the fact that he was going to die,” Whitney said. “The irony did not escape me.”
Winterburn approached her, and said it was time to talk about it, if only because she would soon need to find a new editor. That led to some of the best discussions they ever had as friends, and an interview she conducted with him ends “Into the Night.”
Proud as she is of the work, Whitney is well aware that it was a tough sell for distributors and viewers. PBS stepped up. Beth Hoppe, former programming chief for the public television service, said she recognized the film was important and that PBS had a role to occasionally be an outlet for projects that would otherwise have difficulty finding a home. She compared it to the 1983 film about childbirth, “The Miracle of Life,” of which DVD copies are still being offered for sale by PBS.
“Once people start to contemplate this, it will have a long life,” said Hoppe, who now works at ABC News.
To potential viewers, Whitney has a simple message: Don’t be scared.
“I think it will give people an urgency to their lives not to push off the meaningful conversations, to forgive another person or make amends, to not put off something you have a passion to do,” she said. “Think, ‘what is my story, what is the importance of my life.’ Drill down on that, so that when the moment does come, you’re not filled with regrets.’ ”
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