British Shorts Berlin 2019
& Rachael Swindale
Festival Screening / Documentary Special
Documentary / Drama / Experimental
Sun 20.1. 16:00 / Sputnik Kino 1
The role of an end of life doula comes to light in an intimate documentary, as they connect with people at the threshold of life and death.
Hi guys, thanks for talking to TNC, you all set for British Shorts 2019?
Rebecca: Yes we’re looking forward to being back in Berlin and to experiencing the festival for the first time. We’ve been checking out the programme and following on social media, so can’t wait now to get stuck into watching lots of shorts, as well as meet other filmmakers and catch up with friends who are also involved.
Any nerves ahead of the festival?
Rachael: I think it’s always nerve-wracking seeing how people respond to a film you’ve made. But so far the response from audiences has been very positive.
How does it feel to be at the festival with Holding Space?
Rachael: Great! It’s wonderful to be showing at the festival alongside lots of other fantastic films – many of them made by filmmakers we know. And Berlin is such a great city, so it’s lovely to have a reason to come here.
Rebecca: It’s a brilliant start to the year for us to have the German premiere with British Shorts, and to have the opportunity to be there in person and hear the response. I’m curious to find out more about doulas in Germany too - perhaps someone in the audience will share that. We’ve been fortunate enough to have the film screened at one or two festivals a month since September, in the UK, Ireland, and east and west coast of the USA, so it’s now great to bring it more into Europe.
The response to your work has been amazing, what has it meant to you to get this type of reaction?
Rebecca: It’s been a lovely response and it’s great that something about it resonates. It seems to confirm that this is a key time to have honest conversations about death. There’s a growing community worldwide with people who are passionate in the thinking that we don’t have to unconsciously follow a trajectory that may not be right for us. The supportive role of the end of life doula is really emerging, seen with the recent formation of the association End of Life Doula UK.
Tell me a little bit about Holding Space how did the documentary come about?
Rebecca: Our co-producer Phil Parker and I were chatting about fresh ideas (we’d previously collaborated on a feature doc around homelessness in North Carolina), and as I’d recently experienced the deaths of two close family members and a friend, it was an area that I felt compelled to explore. We did some research and gradually things led to me having a hot chocolate with Hermione Elliott, founder of Living Well Dying Well. She agreed that I could film the end of life doula training but also encouraged me to be part of the group. A couple of years on and I was more immersed than I could have imagined - a trained doula who was then asked to go and meet a man called Nigel, and subsequently supported him for a year. After a time, he and I decided that he would also be one of the lives captured on film and it became a positive part of his process.
What was the biggest challenge you faced bringing Holding Space to life?
Rebecca: We weren’t sure whether it would be difficult to access contributors willing to expose this very personal and potentially vulnerable time of their life, but in fact the people we found were open to sharing their stories, perhaps to help others, perhaps to leave some form of legacy, or to explore and reflect for themselves. We were aware that their families may not be quite so sure, but I spent time building trust, and I think it helped to be referred by doulas who had seen the sensitive way in which I film. It was technically a bit challenging to be a self-shooter and also end up in front of the camera which certainly wasn’t the initial plan, but that evolved as I was also one of the contributor’s doulas.
Did you have any apprehensions about making a film that dealt with such personal themes?
Rebecca: Of course throughout the making of the film, we knew that everything had to be handled in a sensitive and ethical way and that with this film more than ever, things could change at any moment, including boundaries or access. I guess it was quite an emotionally healing time for me and others involved with the film, by facing the subject matter head on and talking about death every day in some capacity. It’s definitely made me live more fully too. As it’s a ten-minute film, we were very aware that we were distilling a brief moment of someone’s life and that that was somehow representing them. Inevitably what was included seemed to take on more significance.
Have you always been interested in filmmaking?
Rachael: I started out wanting to be a writer (if you go even further back, I wanted to be either a fashion or costume designer), but then I gravitated towards film. Now I both write and make films and I’d like to continue to do both things.
Rebecca: I was an actor in a different lifetime but this form of storytelling definitely feels right for me. I realised more and more that I was watching lots of documentaries and started to build up experience on all kinds of projects in either the camera or production departments, as well as assisting a photographer. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else.
What feeds your creativity?
Rachael: The simple answer would be people and places. I love exploring and getting behind the curtain of an unfamiliar world. I find travelling gives my creativity a boost but I’m just as curious about what’s on my doorstep.
Rebecca: Same, I’ll never get bored of meeting people and being curious about them - you get to be a bit nosey as a documentary filmmaker but it’s more than that. I’m sure most creative people have this, I don’t particularly switch off, so anything is potential creative inspiration - tiny observations as you’re going about your day in terms of human interaction or how something visual is naturally framed, as well as of course other creative forms, theatre, fiction, music, podcasts, art and photography. And when you’re editing, biscuits feed it.
How has your approach to your films changed since your debut film?
Rebecca: We’re constantly learning but I don’t think the essence has really changed. I’m still drawn to the stories of people who are maybe on the outskirts of society or normal life, and it still feels right to film with an intimate style and pretty transparent approach in collaborating with contributors. One of the useful takeaways from workshops with Southern Exposure Film Fund and Film London (who supported this project), was to learn from a drama or narrative approach and to continually come back to the story. That humanity is what connects, not a sweeping look at a broad subject.
As a filmmaker how important is the collaborative process for you?
Rachael: It’s hugely important. As a producer, I love being a creative sounding board for a director. I think when you’ve been immersed in a story for a long time you can get a little lost, so it’s important to bring in fresh perspectives, whether from a DOP or an editor or even someone not involved in the production.
Rebecca: The dynamic in tending to be a ‘one person crew’ seems to work for the intimate feel and unobtrusiveness needed for this kind of film, but I really value collaboration and having been able to talk things through regularly with Phil and Rachael, to update them on what I’d filmed that day and any news that may change the course of the film, then have their creative input and ongoing support. Then when it comes to adding the fresh eyes and ears of an exec producer, editor, sound designer, composer, online/grader, it’s lovely to see it taking shape and being enhanced and strengthened by that collaboration.
Do you have any advice or tips for a fellow filmmaker?
Rachael: Don’t wait until you have loads of experience and skills to make your first film. It’s better to make an imperfect film – and then move onto the next challenge - than to sit on an idea for a decade waiting until you’re ‘ready’.
Rebecca: And if it’s not expensive to make a start, don’t put all of your time and energy into applying for the limited funding out there, as it’s often necessary for them to have a visual flavour of the project anyway. It’s then easier to bring it to life and bring people on board, and you’ll hopefully have proven why you’re the right person to make this film.
What are you currently working on?
Rachael: I am working on the script for a TV series set in 18th century London. I’m keeping it a little under wraps for now, but I can say that it’s very female-focused and violent – the polar opposite of a classic ‘Pride and Prejudice’ style period drama.
Rebecca: It was always the intention to develop a feature project, expanding on what the short film opens up, so that’s still a consideration. We’re also discussing new ideas, but first of a couple of projects to complete is a short film following a traditional boatbuilder as he works on his last boat.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from this film?
Rebecca: I hope that people will come away feeling that we often have more choice than we think, particularly when there’s some warning in the form of a diagnosis, in how and where we want to die as well as whom we would like to have around us. If we talk about it now, it takes away a lot of the fear as well as stress for our family and friends having to make difficult decisions at an emotional time if we had never let anyone know what we wanted. Have the conversation now, then you can get on and live so that when it counts, instead of being distracted by paperwork or trying to work out someone’s wishes, you can share the end weeks and days together in a more meaningful way.