British Columbia

'It was cathartic': Filmmaker documents cousin's terminal illness

Filmmaker Carmen Pollard documents the last six years of her cousin's life as he battles a terminal cancer in new film titled For Dear Life, and it screens at the DOXA Film Festival.

Documentary entitled For Dear Life screens at DOXA film festival

James Pollard explores a graveyard while researching his future burial. (Carmen Pollard)

Carmen Pollard has never been comfortable talking about death. So when her cousin, James Pollard, was suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 46, she had little to say.

"I was speechless," she told host Sheryl MacKay on CBC's North by Northwest. "I think it's because we're so afraid of saying the wrong thing, that we don't say anything at all."

But the filmmaker was surprised by her cousin's ability to openly talk about his death, often using humour to cope with his struggle. Captivated by his attitude, she decided to document his final years as he prepared for his funeral.

The film is titled For Dear Life, and is screening at Vancouver's annual DOXA Film Festival.

"At its core, it's a film about approaching death. But it's more than that — it's about the conversation of death and dying and really our lack of open and free conversation around it."

Pollard gets measured for his coffin several years before his death. (Carmen Pollard)

For Dear Life

The film documents James Pollard, a former theatre producer, as he tries to sum up the remainder of his life by saying goodbye to people, exploring burial options, designing his tombstone, and toying with the prospect of donating his body to scientific research

Pollard says James was a performer at heart, and embraced his role as a documentary subject.

"He really welcomed the opportunity to share his story, and to really invite people to learn to live with death."

Pollard said she wanted to avoid just telling a story of a tragic battle with cancer, working hard to find the beauty, humour and light-heartedness.

"Stories like this don't usually have a lot of relief, and it was very important to both of us that it wasn't just a big downer."

'It was cathartic'

Pollard shot the film for over three years, up until her cousin's death. She says it was emotionally challenging, especially during the last year of his life.

But when she started editing the film together, she found refuge in some of the moments she captured on film.

"It was cathartic," she said. "I got to live with him for the seven-and-a-half months that I was editing ... so much of the footage is of him looking so well, and he cherished his life so much during those final six years."

She hopes the film will encourage viewers to be more comfortable talking about death.

"I was so afraid to look at death and dying," she said. "And suddenly I was invited into an experience that allowed me to see it as such an integral part of our living experience — and to just accept it.

For Dear Life screens on May 7 and 14.

With files from CBC's North by Northwest