Filmmaker Interview

POV: Did your entire family know that you had dreamed that you would die at age 48? How comfortable were your children being part of the film?

Amy Hardie: Oh, I really mucked up. I told my husband about the dream immediately and that was great. He saw it in psychotherapeutic terms and thought, death doesn't necessarily mean death — it can mean transformation. I loved hearing all of that, but it didn't actually work for me. I was left with this huge fear in my gut. I also told my son, Eli, straight away, because it was a dream about his father. It was his father who told me I was going to die. Eli's father and I had been students together at the National Film School and we had split up when Eli was just two years old. He had died two years previously. In the film Eli says, "Dreams don't mean anything." But then afterward, as soon as I switched the camera off, he said, "Don't die, Mum. I've lost one parent already. I can't afford to lose you, too."

So I realized it would be a mistake to tell my girls. They were young; they would worry the whole year that this might be their last year with me, and I didn't want to have that pressure. I thought it would make us all morbid. So what I decided to do instead was to start filming them, because I thought, if I do die, the one thing I really want — anybody who's a mother will understand this — is to leave them a record of how I raised them, of all the little things that we do together, like my putting them to bed at night and our having meals together, so they could see themselves through my eyes. And, if necessary, they'd be able to show their kids what grandmother was like.

The Edge of Dreaming: Amy Hardie with two of her children

Filmmaker Amy Hardie with two of her children. Photo by Peter Kravitz.

I felt much safer once I'd worked out a way to carry on mothering, no matter what might happen to me. On my 49th birthday, I had a party and I showed everybody at the party a little film about the dream. My middle daughter was furious — she felt she had been deceived because I hadn't told her, and she thought I was really stupid to believe in the dream. She was just outraged in every way. My youngest daughter thought it was a great story and it turned out well, so that was lovely. For my son, it was a very powerful experience, because it was also about remembering his father.

POV: Tell us more about the shamanic journey you take at the end of the film. Why did you make the decision to do that instead of going the psychotherapeutic route or some other way?

Hardie: I actually tried psychotherapy quite a lot, with three different psychotherapists. Each time it would be very engaging, and I would feel that I understood myself better, but it still made no difference — I still felt terribly scared and my health was going downhill all the time.

When I spoke to neurologist Mark Solms, he explained that he thought that I dreamed about the death of the horse because I had actually picked up, from the horse, that the horse was dying. Now I find that an extraordinary thing. I don't really believe in telepathy, but what he was saying is that a horse lives in a dreamlike state, much more dreamlike than our normal consciousness. Dying is such a huge physiological event that the horse was probably conscious of it, and he probably communicated to me, "Something's going wrong with me. I'm going to die." With my day-to-day brain, my clever, rational frontal lobes, I couldn't pick up that sort of information, but somehow it found its way into my brain. Once I went to sleep, my brain processed that information, and that's why I had the dream.

I felt the only way to change the neural pathways that the dream about my own death had set down was to go back inside the dream so that I would have the same electrochemical connections and I would have access to the different bits of my brain that fire up once I'm dreaming. I didn't know how to do that. It wasn't happening in psychotherapy. Some kind of biofeedback machine probably could have done it. I didn't have access to one. I think hypnotism could have done it. Mark Solms suggested shamanism, which is all about going into your back brain. And so I found out that there was a Brazilian shaman four miles away from where I worked.

I went into the shamanic journey with a lot of trepidation — I was very anxious — but with one clear goal, which was to go back into the dream state. I needed to confront Arthur as he came to me in the dream and say to him, "I am not going to die this year."

POV: How was the process of going on a shamanic journey? Were you afraid?

Hardie: I had never imagined going on a shamanic journey, and I didn't know what shamans did. I didn't even know that there were shamans in Scotland. It turns out shamanism is enjoying a huge revival.

I loved it when the shaman told me, "You can change your dream." When she told me, "You cannot be afraid because you cannot enter the spirit world with fear," I was petrified. Of course I was scared. Yet she didn't do anything strange. I didn't have to take any drugs. I was simply lying on a bed, and I put the microphone on a tripod at the end of the bed. She drummed and asked me what I saw. I felt as though I was just using my imagination in the beginning. But then things I would never have imagined, people that I never expected to see, popped into my brain. It was important that I was open to that. I also had a huge amount of autonomy on that journey. I realized that I could go faster or slower, I could turn back — I had complete freedom.

I think that when you go on a shamanic journey, you're allowing yourself to have much more access to your unconscious or your sense of connection within the universe, whatever you want to call that. You've accessed places in your brain that you don't normally. You're still there — it's your brain. But you have access in a way that you normally don't. For me, doing that felt like being in a new environment. It was a place I had never visited before, but going there was a very rich experience, and it's a place that I know I would want to visit again.

POV: How would you address those skeptics in the audience whose first reaction might be to dismiss shamanism in general?

Hardie: I would encourage them to be scientific. I'd say to them, "Don't stop yourself from looking." I'd say, "Explore. Come with me on the journey." Also I would say, "What is it in you that would stop you from following any investigation to the very end? Why stop yourself? Let yourself really explore."

I don't know whether this is relevant or not, but I worked in a hospice for about a year, and a chaplain there said the most extraordinary thing. He said that he had worked there for 20 years, and that the most difficult deaths he saw were the ones of the most committed Christians. He thought that didn't make any sense; why were people who had a very strong sense of the afterlife and of what was going to happen the ones who had the most difficult deaths? It took him a long time to work out the answer or the explanation.

He told me that maybe the reason people become very committed, dogmatic Christians (or practitioners of any other religion) is that they need certainty. They can't live with the vulnerability of not knowing. They want answers. In his experience, death is about not knowing, about being uncertain, about not knowing what the answers are and being willing to go with that. I think science is like that. I think a scientific approach is not knowing, accepting your vulnerability and going with it.

POV: The film not only confronts your own dream, illness and mortality, but also links them to what's going on in the natural world. Can you describe how you came upon that link and how it's presented in the film?

Hardie: As I said above, going into my shamanic journey, my intent was to argue my way out of death. That happened very quickly, and then something else happened: I was looking through somebody else's eyes, the eyes of a person who was grieving. She was grieving because of the images of the very traumatized earth that she saw. I had to look through her eyes, and I saw the same images. And I was very sad. When I came out of the shamanic journey, one of the first things I did was to go and see if any of the images I had seen were real. Were they really happening or were they just figments of my imagination? I found those images in the earth, and I found them straight away.

It seemed to me that perhaps just as the horse gave me a signal that I could only pick up with my dreaming brain, the earth can be picked up with our dreaming brains. Perhaps we can understand some of the qualities or some of the state that the earth is in with our dreaming brains — that's where we have access. Then I thought, actually, that's not so bizarre because the earth and I are made of the same molecules: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen. We're linked, and maybe somewhere along that linkage some information can flow.

The Edge of Dreaming: Close-up of a horse

Filmmaker Amy Hardie's horse. Photo by Amy Hardie.

One of the things I saw when I was editing the film was this visual link between what was going on in my brain and what was going on in the real world. I saw how brain cells link to other brain cells as one makes neural pathways, which are created by thoughts and actions. When I looked outside on the ice, I saw those same shapes. When I saw the images of my lungs through the machine and when I looked at the sky, I saw the same images.

The film is almost allegorical: It's as if the damage that was done to my lungs feels like an allegory for the damage that's happening to the environment. A few audience members have pointed that out to me, and that's one of the reasons that I love to hear reactions: The audience members bring their own understanding to the film. Other people see so much in the film, and perhaps they see their own lives.

POV: How do you see the link between science and art?

Hardie: I think both science and art are impelled by curiosity: What's really happening? How do things really function? How can I really engage with the world around me? These are questions that artists and scientists both ask.

Personally, I wanted to test my understanding of things, and that's a very scientific drive. I felt that I needed to understand and test what I was being told by the neurologist Mark Solms about dreams, but I couldn't test my understanding of dreams and death with a scientific experiment. I could, though, test them in my own life. Also, I think both scientists and artists often question what language is. After seeing the film, people have asked me whether I believe in spirits. I would say that the word "spirit" is awkward for us, because there's not something that we can point to and say, "There is a spirit." For example, Arthur seemed very real in my dream. He was just as I remembered him. Although he was dead, he was there. I could almost see the sweat on his forehead. He was anxious. He was telling me something he didn't want to have to tell me. He couldn't have seemed more flesh and blood.

Do I believe there is really a spirit like the one I saw? No, because I only have my five senses, even in a dream. So my brain does this great job for me: It turns something that can't be experienced by my five senses into data that I can understand. It creates a person I can recognize and I can understand. Perhaps it's a metaphorical shift from something else, some kind of energy that we can't pick up with our five senses. Obviously there are a lot of types of energy that we can't pick up with our five senses. We don't have echolocation as bats do. We can't pick up radio waves without machines. Birds have a sense of magnetic north, whereas we need a little machine to help us read that. It seems to me that dreams are a little bit like one of those machines. They help us read energy that we can't otherwise perceive.

POV: At the end of the film you're somewhat better, but not fully recovered. How is your health now?

Hardie: After I had the shamanic journey, I knew that I was going to live. I was completely sure of that. I was also very sure that I had nearly died. I expected to get better straight away, but I didn't. I had to keep going back to the hospital every three months. My lungs remained constant at 60 percent lung function. I couldn't walk up the stairs; I couldn't run. So I resigned myself to living always with that level of lung function. But I went back to the hospital four weeks ago, and the doctor said that my lung function has zipped right up to 94 percent and that they can discharge me. It's fantastic. So obviously I had to finish the film.