Monday, June 26, 2006

The Rest is Silence

The Rest is Silence, Andrew Henderson, 2005, Scotland, 10 minutes

This film traces an unclaimed body from a police station to the grave. In the opening scene, the camera moves across a dark room lit by a suspended light bulb above a metal table. An extreme close-up reveals a police form for the “sudden death” of a male. A police officer and two men in lab coats move a covered corpse from stretcher to morgue refrigerator (I actually googled this because the term “refrigerator” didn’t seem appropriate, but appears legitimate on a few websites). The only sounds are those of the metal stretcher moving into the fridge. The camera then cuts to a close-up of metal instruments. We see an empty scale before the camera moves down to the corpse’s feet. A pathologist examines a hand, while speaking (indiscernible) into a tape recorder. He appears almost cheery, digging away at the body and speaking with others over a disconcerting drilling noise. He removes an organ and weighs it. After the autopsy, a woman hoses down the body’s feet and later, the head before they move the body into a body bag and placed in the back of black hearse.

In the next frame, we see a dark, empty church. Lights suspended from the ceiling flicker on one by one, somewhat reminiscent of the opening shot of the dark room. A priest leads the funeral procession; men in black suits rest the wooden coffin at the altar, while a woman places white flowers next to it. The camera quickly cuts to the priest’s eulogy. His words are the only discernable words in the entire film. He mentions that though we don’t know the particulars of the death, “we trust that God knows all there is to know.” As the camera backs away slowly, it reveals the completely vacant pews and also literally distances the viewer from the coffin. This emptiness adds a feeling of loneliness and the anonymity almost makes you feel as though you are watching your own funeral.

The coffin is then wheeled to a crematorium. Two people shove the coffin into a red-hot oven and monitor the cremation on computers. Later, a woman shakes the metal container of bones into a sort of grinder and we hear the (again, disconcerting) sound of the machine grinding away. She collects the ashes and places them in a plain metal box, then a paper bag and finally, they are placed in a cardboard box.

The body’s travels through the red-hot oven are juxtaposed with its arrival at a snow-covered cemetery. A cross stands on a small hill near the lone visible tomb. A cemetery worker slides the tomb lid off and places the box of ashes inside the vacant hole. The only sounds are the crunching of snow and the alignment of the stone cover. After the worker secures the lid and completes the burial, the white snow fades into a white screen with 1:45 seconds left. The text “The Rest is Silence” appears and then disappears. The credits then play in silence.

I picked this film because it is an unusual documentary in many ways, especially since there is no real dialogue. It answers a question (what happens to an unclaimed corpse?) through observation, rather than explanation. A typical documentary might involve interviews with the police officers involved or a step-by-step explanation of the autopsy from the pathologist. Through the silence and few sounds we hear, one almost has the feeling of “hearing” the last earthly sounds associated with death. This approach gives the film a more artistic than scientific feel throughout and fits in with Paul Giametti's assertion that, “Documentarists believe that they're not creating a world so much as reporting on the one that already exists…Many documentaries deliberately keep the structure of their films simple and unobtrusive. They want their version of the facts to suggest the same apparent randomness of life itself”(356). We see how the anonymous body passes through the hands of equally anonymous people, without a sense that the camera's presence is interfering with the people and their work. Regardless of whether one dies alone like this man, or surrounded by family, the fact is that a body will usually pass through many or all of these environments. While this has universal appeal, we also get a glimpse into the unique lives of the people who work in this world, one that most people find mysterious or morbid. There seems to be a mix of reverence (the woman gently washing the man’s head, the priest’s words) and a feeling of “just doing my job”( the shoving of the coffin, the pathologist’s smile) in this environment.

This film could be comforting in the sense that no one really dies alone, and that everyone deserves a respectful burial, the detachment from both the body (and the other people in this film), as well as the cold, bare, quiet resting place also creates
a palpable sense of loneliness.

Awards: Winner of Frank Copplestone Award for Best First Time Director
at the Celtic Film & Television Festival 2006


Middento said...

And yet I'm finding this one of the most distrubing little films I've seen in a long time.

Jay said...

I liked the cinematic way this was filmed, with the tracking shots and other crisp setups (including the one particularly striking shot from inside the circular frame of the crematorium). It made me stretch my imagination a bit to consider whether these same sequences, if fictionally enacted, would work as a fictional short.
To follow an unclaimed body through its post-death procedures is a high-concept idea, and one could almost imagine the events in this documentary being envisioned and enacted in fictional narrative form - though the result of such would inevitably be a far less powerful piece. The power here is in knowing that this is a real man, whose real bones (what becomes, within moments, all that's left of him!) are being ground up into ashes before our eyes.

ltpalm said...

Wow. This is such the powerful film, because like Jay states, it is real. The synopsis speaks of ritual, and that's what I took from the film, how ritualized death is. However, the ritual here is both sacred and mundane. One of the best scenes is of the mournerless eulogy. This was not a revelation to me since I have seen such on film before; however, it was interesting to see how the filmmaker brought "life" to this segment. First, and most beautifully, we see the church slowly light up. That one shot of lights flickering on above as natural light filters in through the stained glass windows is beautiful. Does this symbolize divine light? The opening up of heaven's gates? The next slow dolly away from the preacher revealing the empty church is also awe-inspiring. Of course, here the filmmaker is toying with the audience with the slow revelation that there is no one here to mourn this man, but this scene also demonstrates how alone each of us are. We die alone. Transcend into death alone. This scene also echoes how standardized ritual is. The preacher here is performing as if there were a captive audience besides the body. Similarly, the coroners early sawed opened bodies without thought, gossiping away as if this was just another day, and in fact, it is. So, despite the gravity of this situation, to everyone involved in the "death business," the rituals performed are almost mechanical. A robot could do this. And perhaps some day this will come to pass.