Review by Tim Lam
When I was a child, death seemed simple and straightforward. I was taught that once you die you go to heaven. Over the years, some of that childhood innocence has been replaced by a realisation that death is complicated and, at times, incomprehensible.
Death: A Series About Life is a five-part television documentary that examines death in all its mysterious complexity. It charts the journey of a father and his eight-year-old daughter as they seek to understand death following the passing of the girl’s mother.
Norwegian director Eivind Tolås travelled with the family to 25 countries to explore the diverse, and at times contrasting, ways death is understood. Each episode explores death from a different dimension – physical, spiritual, creative, commercial and political. Scientists, philosophers, religious leaders, artists and everyday people share their thoughts on what they think happens when we die.
Rituals relating to death are a part of every culture in the world. In a multicultural, mulitfaith society like Australia, there is no universal way to deal with death. Death examines how different religious and cultural traditions honour the dead through rituals and customs. What becomes apparent from these narratives is that while religions may commemorate death differently, they are united in the belief that there is life after death.
For a documentary that tackles a morbid subject matter, Death is surprisingly light-hearted in tone. The use of humour provides an entry-point into a topic many people find confronting and uncomfortable. The series aims to catalyse audiences into thinking about death, rather than avoiding it.
Popular culture is one such avenue for us to make sense of death. One of the episodes examines how death is portrayed in art, from the iconic 1957 film The Seventh Seal to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman to Japanese horror movies. Just as watching horror movies can be a cathartic experience for audiences, so too talking about death can be therapeutic.
Death does not always adopt a whimsical tone. There are stories of pain, resilience and inspiration, of individuals confronting the prospect of their imminent death and survivors finding the courage to live after a horrific tragedy. These poignant stories are a reminder that something as tragic as death can become an opportunity to celebrate life.
Throughout the series, a central theme emerges: life and death are intertwined. This is highlighted in the story of Inger Helen, a heart transplant patient who anxiously checks her phone every hour to see if she would receive an organ donation that will save her life. Her survival rested on another person dying.
Stories of death dominate the news every day, yet coming to terms with our own mortality can be a frightening prospect. Death: A Series about Life invites the audience to confront death, so that we may begin to see it as something less dangerous, and more a natural part of life.
Death: A Series About Life is now showing on SBS. It is also available on SBS on Demand.