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Tackling taboo in For Dear Life
Discover how For Dear Life came to be
with director Carmen Pollard
Tackling taboo in For Dear Life
“If you’re a betting man, would you say I make it to Christmas?”
These are words that some may struggle to utter to their doctor even in private, but for Vancouver theatre producer James Pollard, it was just another day of filming his journey towards death.
The scene is but one of the many ways For Dear Life, the latest Knowledge Original documentary, takes an honest and blunt approach to addressing the taboo of dying.
Directed by Vancouver filmmaker Carmen Pollard, For Dear Life chronicles her cousin James’ terminal diagnosis and his approach in processing this sudden time limit placed upon his life.
For Carmen and the rest of the family, the film was also a chance to address something that is not only avoided in general society but something she herself struggled with facing.
“I was always one of those people, like many of us, who ran in the other direction if anyone I knew was facing imminent death,” said Carmen. “I couldn’t acknowledge or participate in the process in any meaningful way, and so when it happened that James was terminal and willing to invite his family and friends to engage in the process, I really didn’t have the choice not to.”
Knowing James was an outgoing storyteller, Carmen approached him about the possibility of filming his experience. James was willing, but noted he was no “hero.”
“I didn’t want just another cancer story and I didn’t feel the hero story was the right way to tell the cancer story anyway, so in a lot of ways what we wanted to do was the antithesis of that,” explained Carmen. “It was not about seeing death as a failure, but rather looking at the dying process as part of our living experience.”
After a few months of shooting, Carmen connected with producer Melanie Wood and they approached Knowledge Network about the financing of the film.
“How often does a broadcaster say yes to a story about death?” said Carmen, “The only place we comfortably watch death unfold is within fictional cinema, so where do we learn any real meaningful language around it? It’s something that our culture is so adverse to, so we were very excited when (Knowledge Network Director of Documentaries) Murray Battle was willing to take a risk.”
Having been given the greenlight, Carmen set about filming James and his journey, as well as the experiences of his friends and family. Initially worried how filming might affect the experience for James’ two children, Carmen was pleasantly surprised at their willingness to participate.
“The extended experience of saying goodbye to their father, that’s a very important life stage for them and I didn’t want our filming to have an effect on that in any way,” noted the filmmaker. “They both had a different way of describing things, but said they come from a generation where everything is documented, and they felt like the film gave them an opportunity to talk about death within a culture where there really isn’t a language for it.”
Asked about her own experience on the project, Carmen noted there were certainly heightened emotions when the subject of your film also happens to be your cousin, and he happens to be dying.
“In a lot of ways, the filmmaking process had to be separate from the emotional experience, but the gift in that, as it turns out, is that by making a film and really facing death, it actually made the grieving process easier. That was a surprise, and I had no idea that that was going to happen.”
With For Dear Life now available to stream at Knowledge.ca, Carmen is hopeful her family’s experience will convince others that dying and death no longer need to remain on the sidelines of conversation and thought.
“James, Melanie and I wanted to make sure this film wasn’t a big downer and that there was a lot of humour and joy in the film. My hope with this film is that it opens people’s eyes to the possibility of not only creating one’s own dying experience and having more agency over it, but just that it doesn’t have to be all dark, that it doesn’t have to be tragic.”