Stories from the Rachel Screening at the Death and the Maiden Conference, Winchester University

When I started on the road to making Rachel, I had no idea what a wonderful journey it would be and could not have imagined that it would eventually lead to the Death and the Maiden Conference.

Taking the film to the conference was such a great experience. Sadly, I wasn’t able to attend the whole weekend so can only report back on the Saturday, but what a day it was – filled to the brim with thought-provoking events that left my mind exploding with inspiration.

I have been following the fabulous Dead Maidens since the early development stages of Rachel and the can only urge people to connect with them via any of their wonderful social media outlets. Lucy Talbot and Sarah Chavez are truly remarkable women.

Challenging, intelligent, witty, beautiful, disturbing, outraging, thoughtful, artistic, dark, illuminating, life-enhancing, gothic, accepting, positive, educational, groundbreaking, magnificent – these are the words that come to mind when I think of their output. The Death and the Maiden Conference was all that, and far more.

  

Best selling author and keynote speaker, Caitlin Doughty, talked about the strange obsession rich white men – especially the ones in Silicon Valley – have with the notion of living forever. What are the implications for society if we / they crack that nut? Is it moral to promise eventual resurrection through cryogenics when we can’t yet convincingly freeze and defrost a strawberry?! What actually defines a truly sentient life form? And, sentient or not, would AI robots actually care about, or even notice, the demise of the human race any more than we do the many fast disappearing species of Amazonian frogs? Isn’t this effort merely an attempt to add to the already excessive power and wealth of a rich, white, male minority? Do we truly want to live forever? Who do we want the future to belong to? The conversation could have gone on all weekend.

Sadly, the event also invited some pretty unpleasant and aggressive social media responses from a few of those white men who want to live forever. For the record, the delegates I met at the Death and the Maiden Conference were infinitely better educated than those judging them and about as fun-loving, and life-loving a bunch of people I’ve ever met. And, for that matter, not all of them were women, let alone death-obsessed goths.

  

Next on the agenda was a segment about ‘Guy the Carver Cadaver’ – Guy being a wood carving (still in progress) of the wasted body of a man, inspired by the ancient tradition of “transi” sculptures that feature on graves of the great and good, portraying them halfway between life and death. Dr Christina Welsh talked us through the history of these sculptures, forensic anatomist and anthropologist Dr Wendy Birch showed us slides of bodies in various stages of decomposition to demonstrate that the carvings were not depicting decomposition but persons close to or only just deceased, and artist Eleanor Crook mused on her craft and spoke beautifully on the recent passing of a dear friend of hers. Absolutely riveting stuff, if a little difficult to digest right before lunch!

     

The afternoon took us to magnificent Winchester Cathedral to see an original ‘transi’ in situ. It was fun and deeply interesting but my favourite memory is of walking with the other delegates through the city streets en mass – overall, we were an eye-catching, strikingly gothic collection of people and it was really lovely to overhear one delegate remark to another about how nice it was to feel so safe, accepted and free to be themselves as they were in that moment, surrounded by likeminded individuals.

        

Later that afternoon there were so many sessions it was almost impossible to choose what to go to, but in the end I opted to attend the one on maternal roles in death. What I heard was terribly shocking – the startling figures around maternal suicides in the year after childbirth (Lara-Rose Iredale), the bizarre way male suicides aimed at political protest are lauded whilst those of women are swept under the carpet (Ilona Pajari), the horrifying truths about how women and their bodies have, and continue to be, used and abused in the pursuit of genocide (Nuri McBride). All three papers were eruditely and passionately delivered, giving rise to far more questions and thoughts than could possibly be discussed in the limited time available.

 

And so to the Rachel screening – well almost…

First came a performance by American singer-songwriter Jezebel Jones. Her Deathfolk Magic “death positive” music project, Bye Bye Banshee, has given forth some beautiful songs, which she shared with us. As a musician, this was a real highlight of the day for me and I was extra excited because I realised that her music – often bleakly comic – would be a perfect addition to my upcoming feature film project, so I’m pleased to say we talked about collaborating in the near future.

 

In the meantime – back to Rachel.

The sometimes overwhelmingly thought-provoking day culminated in the screening of Rachel. It was fantastic to see the film on a big screen – that really is where it belongs. Robert Dukes and Josh Moran both brought cinematic subtlety to their performances that are lost on a small screen and just perfectly understated and beautiful to observe on the big screen. And, of course, the scenes shot by drone (piloted by Mark Bullen) on Holkham Beach were stunning and all-encompassing.

The audience response was wonderful, with tears shed as hoped for, and I appreciated the opportunity to be part of a panel exploring the issues raised.

The discussion was chaired by Dead Maiden, Sarah Chavez and I was joined on the panel by Dr. Christina Welch – Senior Fellow in Theology & Religious Studies at Winchester University, Nuri McBride – Metaheret & PhD researcher at the Minerva Centre, and Deborah Rush – a funeral director with Leverton & Sons, where we filmed Rachel. (Pictured here with me and Caitlin Doherty)

Sarah and I talked about how Rachel is essentially a feminist film, in that it’s about a woman’s right to control what happens to her body, even after death, and about how the story is set against a Jewish backdrop, but could really have been set in any family.

We discussed who has the right to decide one’s funeral arrangements and I was interested to have it confirmed by Deborah that even if you have left a will detailing your last wishes, legally it is nonetheless your next of kin’s decision. So, it’s really important to talk about what you would like by way of a memorial and explain why.

Nuri, being a Metaheret (involved in the washing and ritually preparing the dead in the Jewish traditions, as well as assisting in funeral preparation and bereavement) and also an expert on the subject of genocide, gave insight into the emotional implications of Rachel’s last wishes being fulfilled, whilst Christina talked about the many different approaches there are to those traditions. After Nuri talking about how spiritually difficult the thought of cremation is for the Jewish community, especially when seen in the context of what happened during WW2 in the Nazi-run concentration camps, it was intensely upsetting to hear from Christina that a current increase in the desecration of Jewish graves is leading many in the Jewish community to choose cremation.

So, all in all Rachel gave rise to exactly the kind of conversations I was hoping to inspire when I set out to make the film and I’m pleased to say that the event resulted in my receiving several further invites to screen Rachel.

I came away from the Death and The Maiden Conference with some most excellent memorabilia, blessed with interesting new friends, wishing I could have stayed the whole weekend, admiring the intellect, wit and passion of all the delegates, proud to have had the opportunity to be part of it and sincerely hoping very much that there will be another conference next year.

       

 

 

 

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