Interview: Katrine Philp on Following a Feeling of Grief to Unexpected Places in “Beautiful Something Left Behind”

A few months into filming “Beautiful Something Left Behind,” Katrine Philp realized it would be for the best if she moved her family to New Jersey full-time for the rest of the shoot. It was after a segment of “This American Life” about grief counseling centers for children had found its way to her producer Katrine Sahlstrøm that she was inspired to find one for herself, not having anything similar to it in her native Denmark, and although she had experience filming with the young as they processed trauma, previously telling the story of a 10-year-old who had resettled from Malaysia to Myannmar in “Home Sweet Home,” Philp saw that to capture what extraordinary things would happen at Good Grief as the kids who recently lost a loved one would come to terms with their pain and sadness, it would happen on its own time.

“I wanted to be there when they were ready to be filmed,” says Philp. “I wanted to be available, I wanted to be flexible and I didn’t want to just come for one or two weeks at a time and then leave again. We filmed families in a very vulnerable and difficult situations and we didn’t want to put extra pressure on them, so it was very important for me to really be there when they were ready.”

It wasn’t just that Philp recognized that time would be unquantifiable in making “Beautiful Something Left Behind,” but the feeling of grief itself, yet the director still finds ways to convey how her subjects are touched by loss, tracking six children — Peter, Mikayla and the siblings Nolan & Nora and Nicky & Kimmy — in Morristown while bringing about the understanding of how they uniquely express and work through it. Along with her husband and cinematographer Adam Morris Philp and editor Signe Kaufmann, Philp shows considerable compassion in generously ceding center stage to the kids, who are prodded ever so slightly by activities at Good Grief or by the family members they still have around them to engage, but confront emotions that would be difficult for anyone of any age to deal with and are allowed the space to articulate what they’re feeling.

You can actually feeling a burden being lifted as having a place to talk through their experience gives the kids a sense they aren’t alone and as “Beautiful Something Left Behind” wears on, the weight shifts from a pall cast by death to the momentum created by reconcile the loss they’ve experienced with the small, necessary steps they take to move forward and by virtue of Philp’s camera and light touch, you’re privy to tremendously moving personal transformation that is often too subtle and internal to witness yet is vividly brought to light here. After the film was awarded with the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s SXSW Film Festival, in spite of the cancellation of the physical event as a result of the coronavirus, it has become a hit on the virtual festival circuit leading to a wider release this week and Philp kindly spoke about developing such a delicate project and earning the trust of her subjects at such a vulnerable time in their lives as well as what it’s like to release a film that she’s been deprived of the opportunity of actually seeing with an audience.

After “Home Sweet Home,” was this a natural extension of observing kids process trauma?

It all started some years ago when I was very close to losing my sister-in-law. I watched her struggle with her life and my brother and their three children sitting next to her and at that point, I began to be interested in making a film about how children grieve. I was not really aware at that point that I wanted to do this film, but I think it just planted a seed and then some years later, I started researching and I found this amazing place Good Grief in New Jersey. Children can come and give in to rage and frustrations in the volcano room and they have this hospital room, all these rooms where children can go in and play and act out. I’m from Denmark and we didn’t have that. It’s much more conversation-based, so I was eager to find out more about this place.

The CEO [of Good Grief] Joe Primo just welcomed us right away and I felt so amazed by these wonderful children. They were so open. They were not so afraid of talking about death or grief, so I really like working with children. There’s a lot of magical moments to discover with them, and I haven’t actually thought about me doing films about children in vulnerable situations, but when you’ve seen “Home Sweet Home,” there’s a thread through it, so maybe. I definitely want to do it more.

It’s got to be one thing to get access to Good Grief, but what was it like becoming close to these families?

Because Good Grief welcomed us, I think the families already trusted us. That’s the most important thing when doing documentaries, and it didn’t take long for the children and the families to feel comfortable with the camera and with me arriving there. Everyone actually wanted to be in the film, so we could actually film quite freely at Good Grief. Then my husband was the cinematographer and I also brought my two children, so we were coming there as a family and not as a film crew. That opened up the doors as well because we had our children with us on every shoot, just playing behind the camera when we were shooting and being quiet and when we were not shooting, they were playing with the children that we filmed, so it all blended and merged together. My husband is also really good at connecting with people, so he was inviting the children to play with the camera and it felt very natural for them to have us around, I think.

You’ve said that you’ve found it helpful to be transparent with your subjects about what you’re looking to get out of a shoot – what is it like creating the right dynamic to achieve what you want without overdetermining it?

I always want to have a transparent and open process with my participants. I want to involve them in my ideas and my thoughts because as a filmmaker, I get a lot from them. They really inspire me a lot as to what to do next and it’s so important to listen to your participants and to your film. Where does the film actually want to go? You can have a plan in your head, but when you’re doing documentaries, you have to follow your film and see where it goes and that’s where you have to interact [because] it’s much more interesting. At Good Grief, we were following what was happening because [the children] had these circles and they could go play and so we were just following the children and chasing all the magical moments there. But when we were in the families, we could be more free to talk to them about what would be good to shoot, and I could come up with some ideas and they can come up with some other ideas and we do the film together. For me, it’s collecting all these fragments, these magical moments of life, and that’s what is so beautiful about it.

One of the things that was really important to me was that the entire crew on the film was all working with their gut feelings and not having this structure in their head of what we should do. I told them only to work with your emotions, like it feels right, then we should do it. All the time. And some films, you really struggle with editing it and it’s so complicated. It’s very much in your head, but on this film, I really wanted to pull it down to your stomach. I wanted it to be something that we experience with our emotions, and that actually made it very easy.

Was it difficult to give audiences something to hold onto when it works almost purely on that emotional level?

I actually wanted the structure [to be] like the structure as grief because grief is not a linear process. Grief is like waves and I didn’t want to say, “Now they have recovered from grief” because that would never happen. It is something that will, of course, change forms over time, but it will be something that will follow you forever. And I was actually very inspired by the children’s emotions as a tool to edit the film. Some people have told me the film feels like a cathartic journey, and I really like that that people get that out of it because it is really what my mission is with the film. That when you have just gone through this amazing journey, you feel better or healed in a way in the end. And because I didn’t want the closure, I wanted it to be open in the end [because] there’s nothing wrong with having grief with you. Good Grief is there for the children to learn how to live with their loss and not to shy away from it or hide their feelings. They are there to offer a safe place where the children can talk about whatever comes to their mind and they can react, so I was very inspired by the children.

This was supposed to premiere at SXSW, but has screened virtually since then. Have you still been able to feel the love that’s out there for it?

I was actually almost on my way to the airport when the world was closing down, so I was so sad, mostly because I wanted to share the film with the audience and with the families. We were about to have this wonderful premiere with everyone together in the theater and interact with an audience. It has been a really hard year to come out with a film I must say because I’ve had no direct interaction with the audience and when we’re doing documentaries, that’s why we do it. So I feel all the love from many places coming in, as you said, but I would have loved to experience that in real life, especially to experience it with the Good Grief community and all the children because I know how big this is for them, to sit in a theater and feel the atmosphere and everything when you have gone through a year of filming and a year of editing, so nothing is as it should be.

“Beautiful Something Left Behind” opens in virtual cinemas on January 8th. A full list of theatres is here.

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