Tender look at death and dying

Oct 15, 2013

We’re all going to die. It’s the one indisputable fact of life and, to borrow a line from this beautiful and surprisingly funny film, it’s the only experience where “nobody fails, and you get a certificate at the end”.

In a society where death has become privatised and sanitised, Tender, the third of the films funded under the Adelaide Film Festival’s Hive project, casts an artist’s gaze on a community taking back control of its heart. The documentary follows the residents of Port Kembla as they move towards a more loving, supportive approach to caring for their own.

Their goal? To challenge the multinational companies whose monopoly on the funeral industry they feel rips off those who can least afford it.

Director Lynnette Wallworth has an international profile for her immersive installation art. Her works incorporate new technologies and video, often offering a one-on-one experience for the viewer, who must participate in some way.

Tender, a feature made in collaboration with producer Kath Shelper, revisits familiar themes of mortality, grief, resilience and our connection with the natural world. In a recent interview, Wallworth explained her intention to work with disparate images and narration to maintain the emotional intimacy of the work in a non-invasive way. The imagery flows between spewing stacks above the “rumbling monster” – the factory as a place of “theatre, drama and dread” – to the brilliant colours of the Australian landscape which glow in contrast to the muted greys of the smoke and steel.

We meet a group of town residents as they live their lives, in their homes, at the community garden and coming together at the local community centre as they work out how they’ll take on this new role. As one of the committee members points out: “It’s nothing to be afraid of … it’s not taxidermy!” It’s about doing all you can for the people you love.

Celebrant Zenith Virago mentors the group as it gathers information and skills for the new non-profit business – Community Undertakings – sharing hard facts as well as the deep emotional significance of what they are about to take on. The exploration of death soon moves from the abstract to the specific when one very important member of the community, centre caretaker Nigel Slater, is diagnosed with a terminal illness. The townsfolk realise they are about to begin the process with one of their own, and some see this as Nigel’s gift to the community to which he was so devoted.

Care for the dying is the ultimate last act of love. Tender shares the rewards of facing this head-on, not leaving it until the 11th hour when we’re diverted from reality, rushed through a process that we haven’t planned, missing the precious opportunity to fully engage in this fundamental life event.

Tender may be a portrait of an Australian town but it has universal relevance. Nigel’s story is one person’s story, and everyone’s. If Tender has a central message, it’s that now is the right time to have that conversation, to leave the fear of death behind us and make the most of all of our life.

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Tender will have its final Adelaide Film Festival screening at 12.15pm on October 20 at Palace Nova Cinema.

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