Tender: Embracing death in intimate detail

Why would anyone want to watch a documentary about death?

Macabre and confronting, the subject is taboo for very good reason. 

But filmmaker Lynette Wallworth has laid bare a small community's efforts to shake up the pomp and cost of funerals by launching its own service. Along the way, her documentary raises a number of questions about how we tackle death and loss of loved ones.

Heart-wrenching turn: Nigel Slater became terminally ill during the making of the film. Picture: SUPPLIED

Heart-wrenching turn: Nigel Slater became terminally ill during the making of the film. Picture: SUPPLIED

The film, Tender, follows the Port Kembla Community Centre, led by manager Jenny Briscoe-Hough, as it attempts to launch a not-for-profit funeral service, primarily to bypass the huge financial burden standard services bring. Briscoe-Hough and Wallworth have been friends since early childhood, having grown up together in Kingsgrove, and Wallworth saw a compelling story in the centre's aim.

"It just struck me that this was a universal theme," Wallworth says. "Death touches every single person, so it struck me, when the community were deciding they go along this path to try and find an alternative form of funerals, that it would be the perfect subject matter for a documentary."

In an incredibly sad twist, the 10-week shoot last year travelled down an unexpected route when the centre's volunteer caretaker, Nigel Slater, 58, became terminally ill with cancer; the community's first subject for their business becomes one of their own. 

It makes for intense but engrossing and enriching viewing. The close-knit centre workers and volunteers share their own stories of encounters with death, before they are faced with having to farewell Slater. 

"I know it's a difficult subject matter to get close to," Wallworth says. "But I also know that if you can help people be completely real in front of a camera, authenticity around something that we all deal with is completely captivating." 

The film was made with aid from the inaugural Hive Production Fund, a $600,000 initiative between the ABC TV Arts, Australia Council and the Adelaide Film Festival. Wallworth, who lives in Newtown, has a background in immersive art installations but had never ventured into film before.

The project had another boost from Nick Cave and his long-term collaborator Warren Ellis, who permitted their music to be used, including two new compositions, Nigel's Dream and Church St BBQ.

Wallworth says the film is intended to share knowledge about death.

"It was also intended to be a gentle, evocative illustration of what we could learn in order to have this process work better for us, so that it actually does the job that you would want a funeral to do, to help heal you and help you take stock and move on, with a sense that the ritual had been done well," she says.

"One of my deepest hopes is that I could show that caring for someone you love, to care for their body might not be as terrifying or as impossible as you would imagine, and if you could find a way to tend to that person after they've died, there might be an extraordinary resolution in that."

The Port Kembla Community Project has just launched a crowd-funding drive for their business, Tender Funerals, see startsomegood.com/tenderfunerals. Lynette Wallworth will take part in a free The Hive discussion panel at the Sydney Film Festival Hub at 6pm on June 10, sff.org.au. Tender screens on ABC1 on June 22 at 10.30pm. 

smh.com.au

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