Simon Chambers – Much Ado About Dying


Posted 3 weeks ago in Film Features

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Award winning filmmaker Simon Chambers talks to us about his moving new work, Much Ado About Dying, which goes on general release here this month. The deeply personal documentary chronicles his reluctant journey from India to London to care for his Uncle David, in the process capturing all the joy, frustration, love, and despair often involved in caring for an older relative – in this case a retired bohemian gay actor possessed of an admirably unbreakable, anarchic spirit.

 

“Dying is like going on a wonderful holiday, without the bother of having to pack” – Uncle David in Much Ado About Dying

 

Simon, your film is an often funny and deeply moving account of the five years that you spent as an initially reluctant carer for your lovely Uncle David. What made you decide to start filming the experience and turn it into a feature length film?

Originally I had absolutely no intention of ever making this into a film, despite friends saying that Uncle David was a very funny and inspiring character. I thought that a film about a nephew looking after an old uncle could never be a block-buster movie. And it was the last thing I wanted to do. At first I was a very reluctant carer, I just wanted to get to David’s house, give him his shopping, cut his toenails and then shoot off to work.

It was Uncle David who insisted that I bring my camera. I quickly realised that having been an actor, he was never happier than when he felt like he was performing in some way. Actors seem to come alive when they are performing, and so I ended up with all this footage.

One day I showed it to an old friend of mine David Rane, who is a producer who runs Soilsiú Films from Donegal, and he loved what he saw and insisted that we make it into a film. He thought it was like a documentary version of the cult Richard E Grant film “Withnail and I”.  Although all the action in the film takes place in London, the film was mostly made in Ireland.

 

While your uncle is very entertaining, the camera also records some incredibly touching and personal moments between both of you. How did you manage to film such moving scenes at the same time as being his carer?

The time I spent with David was 80% care work – like sorting out doctor’s appointments, fixing his crumbling house, buying food, cleaning, and 20% filming. Occasionally I would get a chance to film a few moments. I think that it’s because I never had any intention of making a film that the moments I recorded do become piercingly personal and intimate, because they are not self-conscious.

I have always been fascinated by the way that men are represented on screen and in culture, and when I watched it back,  I realised that I had recorded something very different to the usual representations – something much more complex and contradictory and full of emotion and feeling – where you love each other and never tell each other, and you also sometimes loathe each other and wish each other were dead!

 

There is a moment in the film after a very dramatic and calamitous event where you say in your voice-over that you wish your uncle had died. It’s shocking but also seems incredibly honest.

I know. I really struggled about whether to leave that line in the film. When you are looking after an older relative and things are going badly then it seems quite natural to me to occasionally think that you wish they weren’t alive anymore so that you can get on with your own life. It’s a horrible thing to admit to yourself, but I wanted the film to be brutally honest, and I checked with other family carers to see if they felt the same, and they did.

I wanted the film to reflect the experience of being a carer in the most honest way possible so that other carers would watch the film and feel a sense of relief and catharsis that someone was finally telling their story. It’s not that you don’t love the relative anymore, it’s just that after three years of looking after someone you eventually lose all your reserves of energy and resilience and all sorts of thoughts go through your head.

 

The experience that you had looking after your uncle seems highlight many of the issues involved in being a family carer.

When I was caring for Uncle David it became apparent very quickly that there are not many films or stories about being a carer, and yet in Ireland alone there are over half a million unpaid family carers juggling paid work and other family responsibilities who are undervalued in our society. Most of them are women of course, and I wanted this film to acknowledge that work and to shine a light on the experience. It seems to me that caring for people is one of the most important things you can do with your life. It can also be hugely rewarding, and I hope I get that across in the film.

 

No matter what happens to Uncle David, he seems to have an incredibly upbeat attitude towards life and death. At one point he tells his elderly friend that, “Dying is like going on a wonderful holiday, without the bother of having to pack”. Was he really this upbeat in real life?

Without spoiling the film for those who haven’t seen it yet, some very extreme things happen to both of us in the film. I was surprised when David lost all his possessions and told me that for the first time in his life he felt liberated. Then when he is near to death he says that he feels a kind of bliss because he finally understands his life in a way that he never could when he was living it.

 

If an actor’s job is to reflect our lives back at us through stories – making us think about our hopes, our fears and our values – then David gives the audience an absolute gift when he virtually talks us through what it is like to be on the verge of dying. I hope this is a beautiful scene in the film rather than being maudlin.

 

Did going through David’s death with him change your attitude to your own mortality?

It did in a way. I think that part of the reason that we fear death so much now is that we have become alienated from it. It is no longer seen as an integral part of life, but more like a failing. It used to be that in many different cultures a dead relative’s body would be laid out in the family home during a wake and children would often be running around the corpse. Of course this still happens in Ireland, but in many cultures this has changed and death is now more invisible, and so it’s easy for us to fear what we do not know.

 

You are going to be touring Ireland with the film and doing Q&A sessions after many of the screenings. Do you find that audiences tend to react in the same way to the film?

The response to the film has so far been positive, probably because Uncle David is such an inspiring and entertaining character and the film is definitely very funny. The action is also quite fast paced and has the feel of a fiction film rather than a documentary. This is because I have wanted to focus on the emotional story rather than the way that many documentaries give you information and facts.

There are always lots of family carers who come up after the film and want to talk about their own experiences, and I love it that the film is a catalyst for these people to get things off their chest that they might have been holding in for years.

 

Much Ado About Dying goes on general release on Friday May 10th. The film’s Director Simon Chambers will take part in a Q&A session hosted by Lenny Abrahamson at the IFI following the 6.20pm screening there on Friday May 10th. Further Q&A sessions will also take place at Lighthouse Cinema, Dublin on Sunday May 12th, hosted by Sinead O’Shea and at Omniplex Rathmines, Dublin on Friday May 17th.

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