David Marshall would prefer it if people would see his latest documentary before reading about it, not because he’s worried about someone spoiling the end, but because it’s about the end.
“The thing that’s really hard about this story is that as soon as you use the word hospice, or end of life, people shut down a little bit,” says Marshall. “It’s almost like you want to create another way you can look at this experience. This is about learning how to live through the eyes of young people dealing with end of life. This film is so much about how we live our lives right to the end of life.”
In making “Beginning With the End,” Marshall has in fact created another way to look at the experience of death through the story of his one-time filmmaking mentor Bob Kane, who went on to become an EMT and eventually teach a most unusual course at the Harley School in Rochester, New York – a hospice class, where the high school students would take an hour out of their day to care for the elderly. Having shaped Marshall’s life decades earlier after insisting he travel the world, Marshall looks on as he does so for another generation, a group of bright, young seniors who gain new perspective on life from the senior citizens they care for.
For Kane’s final two years of teaching the program before he retired, he reluctantly let in Marshall to see the class firsthand and what kind of effect it had on the students who took it, which in turn had a profound effect on the director. Shortly before the film debuts at SXSW, Marshall spoke about how his thoughts have changed about death, giving up a little control over the cameras to get a more effective story, and why it took him so long to convince Kane to allow him to make a film.
How did this come about?
I had known Bob for quite a long time. I’d been asking him for years to let me do a film about this because I thought it was just a marvelous story and it took Bob about four or so odd years before he finally relented. For him, it was about “Will the camera really change how the dynamics go in the classroom and at the houses? How is it all going to work?” From his vantage, it looked just untenable. What we did was he invited me into the classroom the very beginning of the year and we pretty much proposed it to the students, [by asking] “What are your thoughts on this?” That’s how the whole thing unfolded.
[We shot for] two years, and the first year was a lot of experimenting with what would work, how would we interact. Also, I spent that year getting the houses and the school used to me. It’s a little odd having a 60-year-old guy hanging out in the hallway of a high school. They had to get that under their belt and get used to me and kind of forget me. That’s what happened. You just want to become invisible and that’s when the things really started to become interesting, in terms of just the conversations that were going on, how they were interacting, both with each other and with me, and with the houses, and with Bob. All of it started to really coalesce in that second year.
There were scenes in the film that appeared as if they were shot by the students themselves. Did you actually hand them cameras?
That’s exactly what we did and it wasn’t my idea, it was actually was my associate producer. Initially, I was a little reticent because I felt it wasn’t going to be really good footage for all kinds of silly reasons. What it did is it made them partners with us. They were as invested in the filmmaking as we were and that really changed, in some small way, how they perceived this. This wasn’t our project about them. This was our project.
The other thing that I love about that footage is it tells you a story of them in a way that I could never get with my camera. They interact with each other in a way that’s still fresh and alive and clean. You get a sense that, “Oh, these are just kids.” They look a little bit like they could be special kids from what they say and how they interact with me, but then you see that footage and you realize, “Oh, you know what, these are exactly what teenagers are. They’re quirky and fun and trying to figure it out.”
Although it’s only mentioned in passing in the film, these kids attend a prep school, which suggests they’re being groomed for the future even more than others in their age range. Was being confronted with death so directly an interesting collision to see?
These kids are all trying to figure out where they’re going to go to college. I think the way that we’ve structured things these days, they’re trying to figure out what they’re going to be in 10 years and that’s difficult, socially, for us to be asking young people to sort this all out so that you have a place in the world.
One of the things that came out of the students’ experiences is that they used their time at the houses as a place of rest. It wasn’t that they were going there to work. They really saw that as a place where they could have kind of a quiet time and regroup. That was interesting to me, that that’s how they perceive this time. Inside that, they were learning from people who were at the end of life what life really means. They would be talking to these people about the people that they loved, or who loved them, or their favorite pet. All of these things were about this human connection. It was never about how big my house was, or what career track I took – that was never part of the conversation.
When you look at that, you think, “Well, what’s important in life?” They were telling them that the real things you need to value are the relationships and how you are with people. That’s what you’re going to remember and truly value. When somebody in that position tells you about their life, you can look at that through your eyes. For some of these kids, it was an opportunity to evaluate or reevaluate, “Where am I going? What do I really want my journey to be?” That was really kind of miraculous to see.
Did making the film actually change your relationship with the elderly?
My experience of this, I think, was very much like the students’ experience. Initially I was quite reticent, “How am I going to do this?” A lot of the students even say things to this kind of degree. I don’t want to hurt anybody, or I don’t want to do anything wrong. What you find in working in hospice is that there really isn’t a lot you can do that’s wrong. Being there is enough, and taking the time to care for somebody is an enormous gift to you.
It appears to be something you’re giving to someone else, but in the end, it’s very much a gift that you receive, in the doing. No one’s giving you anything but the moment that you’re in. That experience, doing that, and learning that has real value and meaning, was something that I got out of the experience and I’m hoping that film, in some small way, shows that. We, in this society, have kind of pushed death away, in many, many ways. You can look at it from all different kinds of perspectives. That’s been a mistake. Death is very much a part of our world and it can be embraced. It can be something that’s quite loving and caring and beautiful if it’s done with love, compassion, and empathy.
“Beginning with the End” will play at the SXSW Film Festival on March 10th at the Stateside Theater at 11 am, March 11th at the AMC Theater at the Violet Crown Cinema at 2 pm and March 15th at the Stateside Theater at 11:30 am.