MY favourite quote about dying is that old one from Woody Allen – “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
The comedian turned filmmaker coined those words a long time ago, and he is nearer now to not wanting to be there than he was at the time. But then I guess we all are, although death isn’t something we talk about much in our society.
That’s why a documentary shown on BBC2 last night was so remarkable: a whole hour about death – except that documentary-maker Sue Bourne said her film wasn’t about death but life. She spoke to 12 people who had been told that they were going to die. Not at some vague time in the future; not over this horizon and with luck the next one; but in weeks or months or maybe a year or so.
Her film was called A Time To Live and she spoke to people who were snatching days and hours and weeks. They were living under the darkest shadow, but they were having the time of their lives. Or if they weren’t, they were assessing their lives and living as fully as possible.
Despite that positive title, this wasn’t a film about partying until they dropped, although 56-year-old Annabel was living on her own and looking for love or passion: her first act on being given her terminal diagnosis was to ask her husband for a divorce. She also took up painting and she would have carried on dancing if it weren’t for the pain caused by the incurable bone cancer in her leg.
Some of the people Bourne interviewed were still young; one was only 23, hardly more than a girl. A young father in his 30s had a brain tumour and was clearly suffering from depression, too. He refused to take his antidepressants, then relented and was shown two weeks later, looking calmer and happier: this was partly down to the tablets, but also due to having had his first seizure. Here was a man who felt calmer for shaking hands with death, and getting away with it for now. He had been given a sense of his ending and felt better for it, although he still welled up at times.
A woman approaching 50 spoke of the life she’d led with her husband and her two girls. Her husband said she looked as lovely as ever – “Even though when I undress I look like the victim of a shark attack,” she said.
An elderly Buddhist had declined further treatment and was living out her final days in a haze of pain-management and serenity, so frail that she seemed almost to be fading before our eyes.
A man in his seventies bumbled round the golf course – “Those lessons have made me worse” – and spoke about his calamitous life with buffered charm. He had found happiness and stability in a second relationship, and in a way treated his brain tumour as another of those unfortunate accidents that had littered his life, another bloody thing to trip over. His main desire was to live long enough to attend a family wedding, and he was shown in his morning suit, raising a glass of champagne as he sat in a striped deckchair.
Bourne’s film was remarkable: moving, sobering, uplifting, shattering, yet it was also simple. All she did was point her unblinking camera at 12 people who had been told they were going to die, and asked them to talk about the experience.
Much of the film was taken up with their faces as their spoke, with questions from Bourne – gentle and calm questions, sometimes funny questions – but no commentary.
She decided against the usual ending, the one you’d been expecting. There were no closing titles to say who had died and who had lived. Bourne said in a voice-over that because this was a film about life, she didn’t want to give that information.
I wouldn’t normally recommend that you sit down for an hour and watch a documentary about people who are dying. But A Time To Live is well worth catching up with on the iPlayer.