How do you live with the unlivable? Learning to live with the death of a child is a lifelong process, one that involves many pitfalls, detours, and, if we’re open to them, blue skies. For me, a filmmaker, that process involves periodically revisiting the turning points on that treacherous road.
My son Michael died on August 9, 1986. His death was sudden and incomprehensible. He was nine years old. His younger brother was seven. I was a 36-year-old photographer, and for two years after Michael’s death I could only photograph trash–the abandoned remnants of past lives.
Shortly after that, I began making films. In 1995 I made a personal documentary, “The Band”, about Michael’s brother’s junior year in high school. As told through my eyes, it was both the story of his life and was centered around his high school marching band, and of our relationship nine years after Michael’s death.
I made several films and a TV series after that. Then, in 2011, I revisited the aftermath of Michael’s death with “Sweet Old World”, my first narrative film. I worked on the screenplay for ten years, tearing up many versions as I went.
The reality is, it took me that long to find the story I wanted to tell, and to know why I wanted to tell it. The emotional landmine that is life after the death of a child is so complex, so unexpected, and so frightening that it is rarely, I believe, depicted well in films.
To find my story, I went back to a pivotal day I will never forget, a little over a year after Michael died. One evening, home from work, I realized that for the first time since his death I had gone an entire day without thinking or crying about Michael. This was not a moment of joy…far from it.
I reacted with horror at the sudden realization that there would be a time when I will go days, weeks, months without feeling the knife edge of his death, when my grief will morph into something else.
It was as if Michael had died once again. Losing my grief was tantamount to abandoning him, handing him over to the myth of “closure” and the horrendous mantra, “Life goes on.” It was accepting life without Michael, an unacceptable reality.
This is a moment all of us go through. It’s a time of great fear and despair. And it is the juncture when you have to make a choice, to decide to accept what will never be acceptable and a way to live with it. The choice is terrible but unavoidable. And the decisions you make can determine much of how you live with this awful burden.
I decided to tell the story of a man, Brian Hinkle, who couldn’t make that choice. Eight years after his son’s death in a terrible accident, he has wrapped himself in the shroud of his grief and turned away from his life. He is, in Joan Didion’s words, “pathologically grieving. Frozen. Not really living, yet still here.”
But there’s one “problem”– Brian has another son, Ethan. Just seven when his brother died, Ethan’s own pain and grief have never been acknowledged by his father. Brian just can’t allow anyone, even his own son, into his dark cocoon. Their relationship, mirroring Brian’s life, has become cold and empty.
I wanted to explore what would happen to father and son if something, or someone, made it impossible to continue living that way. Would they find a new connection, a new relationship? Or had the rut of the past eight years grown too deep, too ossified? That’s the story of “Sweet Old World”. It’s a film about finding the possibility for healing in unexpected, surprising places–and being open to those blue skies.
“Sweet Old World” is available on DVD and Video on Demand on Amazon, ITunes, and at sweetoldworld.com.
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