As an advocate, I tend to favor nonfiction over fiction films, but I’ve got to give it up to fiction narrative films when it comes to death. I’ve got my issues with the way they handle dying, but from the gloriously sappy (Beaches) to the hilarious (the Woody Allen oeuvre) to the seriously serious (The Seventh Seal, The Sweet Hereafter) on to the hyper-violent (28 Days Later), feature films have gone deep, and effectively, into the end of life. (As for the disasters, of which there are too many to count — What Dreams May Come, Lovely Bones, the entire torture porn genre, etc.)
HBO (which isn’t just TV, they tell me) also got death pretty damn good with Six Feet Under. That show, which aired from 2001 to 2005, told the story of a family that ran a funeral home. It bathed in death. But it also relished life in all of its absurdity.
And what of documentaries? Tonight, Homegoings premieres on PBS, and it’s as close to a nonfiction version of a Six Feet Under episode as you could hope for. Which is to say, it’s fantastic. I’m not saying it’s oddball in the same way that show was (although it does features some oddities), but it’s an equally compelling embracement of life and death in its retelling of a real funeral home run by a family in Harlem, New York City.
Documentaries, in fact, are awash in death. Two of the most important nonfiction directors are connoisseurs of death: Errol Morris and Werner Herzog. Morris’ first film was about the final resting place for animals, Gates of Heaven (POV, 1988). He’s also made films about a death row inmate (Thin Blue Line) as well as an executioner who is also a Holocaust denier (Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.). Herzog has also faced death row (Into the Abyss) and broadcast the sounds of a dying man and woman (Grizzly Man).
In docs, there are whole subgenres of death-facing films, whether it’s the Holocaust (Shoah), grizzly crimes (Paradise Lost), serial killers (Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer), war (The Tillman Story, Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience), foreign atrocities (The Act of Killing) and cancer (A Lion in the House).
Yes, I guess you can say docs truck in the subject of death a lot.
But few good ones face the every day ceremony and reality of death as a subject unto itself. (I haven’t seen A Family Undertaking, which also aired on POV, or FRONTLINE’s The Undertaking.) I was immediately taken with Homegoings director Christine Turner’s subtle camera and non-invasive approach. It’s real. It’s funny. It’s absurd. But it’s not exploitative (even as it shows the embalming process). I was impressed at how the film is so without exploitation of either the issues of grief, death or African-American culture.
Wait, did I mention that the funeral home in question is the Owens Funeral Home, a black family-run business in Harlem?
Yes, as much as Homegoings is specifically and especially about an African-American funeral home, the doc’s themes consistently transcend that. And although it can be regarded as a signature representation of black culture in America, the film was, for me, more about living with death, which is something we all have to face.
Like they say, it’s the great equalizer.
On June 24, at 10 PM, POV will present the national broadcast premiere of Homegoings on PBS (Check local listings). The film will be available for streaming on the POV website starting June 25, 2013 through July 24, 2013. Visit the Homegoings companion site to join the conversation about the film, get an update on the subjects, watch deleted scenes and read background information on the funeral industry and the rich tradition of African-American funeral directors.