Death is the one universal constant we all have in common. From single-celled organisms to whole galaxies, each lifespan is finite, with a definitive beginning and end. With her new documentary, Into The Night: Portraits of Life and Death, writer/director Helen Whitney has gotten up close and personal with this inevitability, though she’s quick to point out it’s not as doom and gloom as the title makes it out to be.
“The film is as much about life — how we live in the face of death,” said Whitney, speaking to me on the red carpet ahead of her film’s premiere at this year’s Austin Film Festival. “Unfortunately, we too rarely ask that question until we’re in the middle of dying. The middle of dementia. The middle of fighting this healthcare system.”
Whitney’s last film, Forgiveness: A Time To Love and a Time To Hate, took her from the killing fields of Rwanda, to adultery sessions in Santa Barbara. But, while at the bedside of those who were dying, Whitney said she was “struck by how many of [their] last words were ‘Am I forgiven?’ or ‘Did I reach out enough?'”
Finding that the want to be forgiven was so deeply embedded that it was their question when at death’s door, Whitney felt that at this point of her life, soon to be facing mortality herself, the film “gives her the opportunity to ask these questions.”
She takes the perspective of those who aren’t necessarily at death’s door, which gives them a greater opportunity to ponder the great unknown, as well as the legacy they’ll leave behind when they’re gone. “The people in this film have the privilege of time, the privilege to ask these questions. The film is really not depressing. People have said they went in a little leery, and came out thinking ‘I have to get my story together!'”
It’s the desire to shape those individual stories that helped shape the documentary. “What’s the narrative that’s been sustaining you, and will sustain you when you have a terminal disease? Maybe you should recreate yours.”
Into The Night: Portraits Of Life And Death is currently making its rounds on the festival circuit. To see if it’s playing near you, check out the website here.