A Philosophy of Closed Eyes, and an interview with director Sacha Kullberg

What happens when we die? It's a common and scary question for many of us, though it's also a question that's usually aimed at the afterlife. The fact that we die in the physical world is a given, yet the ideas about what happens to the body after death are apparently not as enriching, touching, or informative as it is to wonder about otherworldly possibilities. But you really do have to think about it -- what does happen when we die? We get put in a hole or burned -- worms or fire take care of the rest, and that's it? Why does it happen this way, anyway? How do our families and friends know what to do with us when it's our time to cross the black line?

Director Sacha Kullberg's documentary on death, burial, and the relationship between body and planet is an incredible heart-mind journey into the cycle that is our existence on this earth. A Philosophy of Closed Eyes struck a deep chord of interest in me, and I got a wonderfully candid mailterview with the woman herself.

Celeste Ramos: Your view on the relationship between the human body and the human approach to the planet is intriguing. The way you explain it makes it pretty obvious, actually, and it’s strange that this topic doesn't come up more often. Are there other areas or topics where you think we can find such a deep link to the human body?

Sacha Kullberg: Definitely, this topic does pop up in other places where there is 'body'-waste: food (especially meat) and how it is grown, and what (waste?) is left-over when it has been grown. And then of course how we deal with the other end of our food: our own excrements. Isn't it really weird to mix excrements with drinkable water, and then flush the lot down the sewage system?  And we even know that if treated correctly, excrements are actually a good fertilizer for land. But we don't use it like that anymore, we have chosen to use chemical fertilizers instead. We see excrements as waste, and waste is a problem. We buy drinking water in plastic bottles, and this plastic is a real and huge ecologoical problem. And of course, having access to drinkable water is becoming a huge problem in many places of the world.

The main starting point of the film was when I realised that the way in which we treat the human dead body in our Western Society today, is mainly through a linear philosophy of life: from conception to birth-and-then-life, with death being the end of it all. This end-of-the-line way of thinking about life gives us an attitude towords death which is a little bit like: "Ugh, I don't want to know, and I don't need to know ... When the body is dead, life has 'gone' and it is finished, so it is not useful anymore. It's the end of the road - let somebody else take care of that, (and I'll pay), but I don't want to think about it."

But this line of thought doesn't let us see that - materially speaking - whether the body is buried or cremated, it will go on and join the material of the planet; a planet, which as we all know, isn't in very good shape for the moment. I had the feeling that there was a kind of parallel and a logic between the two. I think that these last 50-60 years, we have (little by little) lost contact with true materiality, which is something incredible when you think about the reputation of our society as being very materialistic. We have become intellectual materialists, but we have (in many ways) lost contact with the materiality of the world. And real matter has this very reassuring quality of never really disappearing -- it recycles. Nothing is created, nothing is lost, everything is transformed (Lavoisier). Approaching the issue of materiality and recycling through the subject of the human dead body was a way to emphasize the fact that the planet is in fact ourselves, it is not a symbolic statement. So then, the film proposes ways to take care of ourselves and our dear ones, and thus of the planet.

CR: Did making this film change any of your own attitudes toward death?

SK: Yes, the film changed my attitudes to death. Meeting people that work with death on an everyday basis is very soothing: they are not the horrible, money-motivated, vampire-like beings that we fearfully imagine they are. Most of them are very high-quality human beings, who have chosen to pass a line, a taboo, which is firmly installed in our society. I know I won't be scared the day I land in the care of a funeral undertaker, because in many ways I know now what will happen. And the biggest part of any fear comes from not knowing. This is also the main "purpose" of the film: giving information to people in a gentle way. It is great to know some of these things because it prepares us for a moment which comes to nearly all of us one day, and then it is very urgent: how do you decide what has to be done with the dead body -- mortal remains -- of a friend or family member ?

I don't think the film has really changed the way I see my own funeral. If it has, it is in a way that it is less important today than it was before, because I know now it is a moment which belongs to those who will have to organise it. I won't be there to help them. So I will leave a message about what I would prefer, (because this often does make the decision-making easier for those who have to), but they can do whatever is best for them.

Of course, there is a very big difference between death itself and the process of dying. My view on dying has changed during the making of the film, but not directly due to the film; it just does, all of our life... It really isn't the subject of the film. Something that did become stronger during the making of the film though, is the feeling I have about medical care, equipment and machinery,... which will only work for me as long as there is a real chance to live with better quality. Living longer in terms of quantity is not something which is important for me today. But perhaps this view will change one day -- who knows what will change in my mind when death draws nearer?

CR: Do you think green burials will become more common in the future, or will things continue to be more technological?

SK: I cannot see into the future, but there does seem to be like a double movement in many things for the moment: technology/science going faster, looking for quicker, less expensive and (let us hope) better ways to do, fabricate and "recycle" things. On the other hand, there is a longing and a need for contact with the natural world and its rythms, a way of living in which there could be more place for equality and sharing. This second way demands more time; time to live, to share, to talk, to take decisions in a democratical way. Obviously it would be great if we would be able to create a system in which we would have best of both worlds, and that is where I really hope we are going. I think it will depend on the number of people who will be prepared to take responsibility for their own lives and choices in an active way. Democracy is something which is created, hardly ever given/offered. And of course, if we don't put the care for the planet and ecology in the very first and most important position, there won't be much quality left for humans in a very short time.

CR: What inspired you become a filmmaker? What kinds of films do you hope to make in the coming future?

SK: One of the reasons I made this film in particular is because I think that in our Western world, we have allowed ourselves to be deposessed from our lives in a very simple sense: there are many things we don't understand anymore, things like growing food or building a house, or burying our dead. Our grandparents knew how to do those things. And we find ourselves not wanting to know, because in the rare cases we do want to know, they seem so very complex, and out of reach. But there are more and more people that succeed in sharing information about the world and how things work in a way which makes it understandable for the 'normal' people. Not only the specialists/experts. Making films for me is to participate in that information, making information accessible to the very normal and wonderful people most of us are.

I think that making films is like doing many other things in life. It can come from the "inside" -- motivation, an urge or simply a pleasure -- or it comes like a reaction/adaptation to the external world (need for money, food, shelter,...). And then there is the fact of sharing, making, creating something with other human beings. Ideally, for me, all this should be met in any job. But today, in my opinion, most people are often obliged to work for necessity/money only. Working in a creative job (and definitely documentary film) is a way to be sure that there is sense to your work. Film is a group-job, which is really great: you make the film with a team and you make it for many people to see it. The only dark side on my level, it's just the money side which can be difficult. ;-)

For the moment I am working on the topic of economy, hoping to find the money to make a film which brings understanding of and practical tools for economic change. Simple change. We all know what an annual or monthly budget is. We should have confidence in this knowing and share it, instead of leaving so many huge economic decisions to "specialists."

CR: Who inspires you as a filmmaker? Is there anyone you would like to work with in the future?

SK: There are many filmmakers that inspire/d me.  I have seen many films, and have a very bad memory for names. And not all the films of the same filmmakers touch me. But the very first documentary film which made me want to make documentary films was Face Value (1991) by Johan van der Keuken, and I really, really like nearly all of the rest of his work.

Some other filmmakers/artists/films I really like are Agnès Varda, Robert Kramer, Rineke Dijkstra, Frans Buyens, Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel. In fiction, I've enjoyed Dead Man by Jim Jarmush, Jane Campion (especially An Angel at my Table and Holy Smoke), Pedro Almodovar, Lee Chang-dong (Poetry), Xialu Guo. Yesterday I watched a documentary on the work of Stanley Kubrick, which was incredible.

If I could work with somebody, I would like to work with Coline Serreau, who is a French filmmaker, and has made quite a number of films for the 'big' audiences about some very important subjects [like Think Global Act Local] ... but I haven't contacted her yet. :)

Check out Sacha talking about A Philosophy of Closed Eyes on RaindanceTV below, and don't miss the film blog for more on the people behind the making of the film (put on your French hat). My thanks again to Sacha!

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