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The Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival from the interns' point of view
Friday, April 4, 2014
Blog posting by Kayla Reopelle, Documentary Studies and Production '14, FLEFF Blogger, Roy, WA
Tonight’s screening of A Will for the Woods, made by first-time feature filmmakers Amy Browne, Tony Hale, and Brian Wilson, Jeremy Kaplan and T. Griffin, was full of sniffling sounds from the audience. This character-driven documentary about green burials did not focus on the facts of the industry, but the mission of one man -- Clark Wang.
The film started out from a conversation that Amy Browne had with her sister. She found incredible comfort in becoming part of an ecosystem after she dies. There was a lot written about this subject, but not a lot of things filmed. She pitched the idea to a class at The New School and cinematographer Jeremy Kaplan got on board.
What began as an idea for a short in Newfield, NY at Green Springs Natural Cemetery developed into over 350 hours of footage which eventually became a feature length film. During the editing process, Tony Hale and Brian Wilson joined the project.
Amy Browne, Tony Hale, and Brian Wilson attended the screening and answered questions from audience members after the film.
The following are excerpts from the Q&A discussion.
Tom Shevory, Moderator: I’ve never seen such an intimate portrayal of death. I’ve never seen something treated with such sensitivity toward the subject.
Amy Brown: Thank you, it was definitely a dance all the time.
Having four co-directors, people say, how do you do that? It created a real democracy.
Tony Hale: We had to agree on everything before it got put into the film
Question: In documentary filmmaking, you can get really close with your subject. It seems like you spent three years…
AB: We were with him for nine months before he left for Seattle.
Q: Oh, wow… I noticed that at some points in the film there was some acknowledgement of the filmmaker. Do you think your attachment with Clark changed the way you put the film together?
AB: We often stepped out from behind camera... a lot of things became very participatory.
It didn’t make sense for us to be these observers, watching everything under this microscope...
At the funeral, there were times where Jeremy and I would put the camera on the tripod and be washing the body and taking care of it ourselves.
I think that made it really apparent that the editing would be like that.
We weren’t sure how much we would end up being in the film, there was a scene of washing with the body, but then we were like Who’s that random guy? Our friends liked it, we thought it was going to be this great movement of interaction with the filmmaker.
Brian Wilson: It’s a world that’s existing without needing too much interview and things like that. Those moments where Clark hugs Jeremy and Amy hugs Clark, it still comes as a surprise, but it’s a reminder of this relationship with the filmmakers. We wanted to choose those moments carefully.
TH: It gives a sense of how Clark felt with Amy and Jeremy there, and they were actually friends
Q: How did you actually make the first connection with Clark?
AB: Joe Sehee (founder of the Green Burial Council) actually made the first connection with me. He mentioned a man who was living in North Carolina who was extremely adamant.
He had a bad experience with a green burial ground that said they were selling green burial plots and they were not. … Joe said to us, he is sick, but one day you guys should meet. About six months later, Joe called us and said Clark, the man I mentioned to you, was getting worse.
‘Oh you went through the Clark test,’ to sort of win his trust, he wanted to make sure we knew our stuff.
We went down just thinking we’d be there for a week to get an interview, but soon went to radiation, to see his green burial grave, did an eight hour interview and just let us into his life straight away.
He told us, I’m fighting to survive and I’m fighting to beat cancer, but if I can’t make it, I want you guys to be there to film my green burial and funeral and share this with as many people as you can. … We were fulfilling his wishes.
There is a dance with documentary about privacy and all that stuff, but he was always very generous with us.
Q: In our culture, we are not around newly dead people very much. I was just wondering if any of your three would care to share with me the way you felt about being around the body and touching the body, it’s not an experience i know very much about
AB: I thought it was going to be very different to be a living person around someone who is sick or dead, but it was so natural.
Sort of in the film, a lot of people were wearing gloves, but I don’t want people to think that’s because he was dead, it was because he died of a bacterial infection… but it wasn’t as scary as I thought.
… by the end of it when we were in the woods on Sunday after four days, it felt like you really went through the grief and had time to live it out. I found it to be very comforting and healing. It’s amazing how comfortable you become, you change the dry ice and the straw and stuff. It doesn’t feel icky or strange.
BW: We used to handle our dead all the time, and it was only very recently that we stopped doing that ourselves… in many ways Jeremy and Amy were acting [like this] because they had learned so much
Q: In the first scene you had people really resisting this form of burial, obviously there is a lot of controversy, so how did you handle that?
BW: I think we handled less controversy than we might have thought. We are actually about to show this film at ICCFA (International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association), the convention shown in that film. It’s going to screen for a lot of funeral directors, green and not green, so it’ll be our first experience in the belly of the beast. And they’re hosting the film, so it’s not a secret thing. They brought it there with some money from Diane… A lot of funeral directors, they're there to help the family, they want to help the family. Some don't offer their services, they think it’s a weird thing, but the vault companies may be straight up against it.
AB: And the film was, as Tony said, three and a half hours at first. There was a lot about cremation, we talked about using statistics, cremation, animation and such. We wanted to get this information out, tried it, and just couldn’t get it to fit in the film that we wanted to make. We didn’t want to focus on the negatives.
Q: In terms of land usage and efficiency, how many more people can fit in a green burial versus a conventional cemetery?
The filmmakers passed this questions off to audience member and former subject, Joel Rabinowitz.
Joel Rabinowitz: I manage Green Springs, a green cemetery in Tompkins county. To me efficiency isn’t the focus, but certainly it’s a way to save land, to preserve land, to use land in a way it doesn’t negatively effect that land. Green Springs is currently working with the national conservation service to preserve land. We have a lot of meadow land, and we’re extending that land to protect that habitat for birds.
A related question to yours is, aren’t we going to run out of space? Isn’t cremation a better wary to preserve land because you don’t have to bury a body?
And in this country, I don’t think we really have that problem. In a very small country like Luxembourg or the Netherlands they may have that consideration, but we have lots of wilderness area, you can set up a natural burial adjacent to already preserved land. That cemetery can act as sort of a buffer between developed land and a state or national forest.
Q: I had just a comment, about the experience of the film. It was very interesting for me to come here at the end of my day, sit down after my day being in a critical thinking science mood, and I was thinking what’s the storyline, the editing’s a little choppy, and then after about 4 mins, you introduced Clark and just left him to tell his story, and even the nature of the way of the cinematography and stuff like that, it allowed me to sync with the film in the way that humans are awkward. I just wanted to share my appreciation for letting me sink into the film at my own pace
BW: Thank you, and with Clark, no one could have asked to make such a great friend…
When you go in to making a film, you don’t go in asking for a Chinese Polka Cowboy.
Q: “One thing that really stood out to me in this film, is that very rarely you see an adult with autism being shown in a distinctly positive light. I know that’s now what this film is about, and it wasn’t spoken about it at all.”
The filmmakers interjected. They had never discussed autism with Clark and did not know if he was diagnosed.
The audience member continued:
“But really, by the end you fall in love with this guy, very rarely, and the only reason why I picked up on it was because I am an adult living with autism as well, and so rarely do you see people shown like that so positively. And the fact that that wasn’t the point made it even better.”
AB: I’m just so fascinated to hear you say that, because it’s never been said about that before.
BW: …And I think we have a million identities wrapped into one and I think we just wanted to represent Clark as he represented himself.
Q: For nine months you spent this amazing path with Clark and it’s a very emotional and spiritual path. I was just wondering how you felt, emotionally spiritually were able to go that that and then he’s in the ground, he’s in he environment and on screen.
I was just wondering how you felt when you watched it.
BW: I think that’s something that’s a difficulty but also a joy to be able to relive his presence and knowing that we’re fulfilling his wish.
TH: But it’s also hard to see him die over and over again.
AB: I left out all my emotion during the filming, when I watch it now I’m not numb, but…
I think he’s one person who’s one of the most transformative mentors of my life. It was incredibly emotional to connect with him and be present for his passing; it was a spiritual experience. I think while we were editing it, our blinders were on. We were so focused on giving him a voice and fulfilling his dying wish. Now when I watch it, I’m filled with such pride, I’m so proud of it. I’m not ashamed to say we made this.
I wrote to Jane (Clark’s wife), we did a screening in DC last week, and said I’ve been in Australia for the last three months, and I just had to write to Jane and say it was so great to be there together. It always feels like Clark is there, shining down.
Without having any children, this is sort of a legacy for Clark, this is sort of a way for his memory to live on.
Before leaving the theater, the filmmakers thanked the audience members who knew Megan Murphy, another person whose green burial was featured in the film, for coming to this screening.
If you missed A Will for the Woods, it will screen again at Cinemapolis on Saturday April 5 at 12:00pm with filmmakers Amy Brown, Tony Hale, and Brian Wilson.