Seven Songs for a Long Life

PBS Premiere: Jan. 30, 2017Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Statement

I came to Strathcarron Hospice with strict instructions: "Hang around." Being an artist in a medical establishment you get good at hanging around. Feeling useless becomes your evolving art form. Finally the patients took pity on me. Maybe they were feeling a bit useless too. Disease can do that. Then they started singing to the camera. I loved it! Myself, I was banned from the singing circle right in nursery school. But the songs that came from the patients at Strathcarron were so full of passion, dreams, anger, regret, acceptance — I felt it was their whole lives tunneling into the camera microphone. We started making little music films together, three minutes, five minutes, interspersing the song with observational footage of their time in the hospice and at home. The requests came in thick and fast and I learned an interesting thing — when you've been told you have a disease that is going to kill you, you don't waste time. And you want pleasure. To receive it and to give it.

Time is one of the greatest gifts someone can give you. When you sit with someone you are giving them your time. I spent four years filming in Strathcarron, listening, watching and taking up time from the patients and the staff. Sometimes there was a sense of urgency — if someone is in pain then each second of pain is a second too long. Sometimes time looped back on itself and we were transported by the songs back into someone's childhood, or their first love, or the moment they lost their spouse. Julie, one of the patients who had been told she had months to live, lived firmly in the moment. As the moments stretched into months, and then years, she had a rethink. She dyed her hair blonde and went back to work, fell in love, got married. Is she scared of dying? Not anymore, she is ready. How long is a good marriage? How long is a long life? As Dorene says after her successful stem cell treatment, "This treatment has given me five years--and five years is a long time."

I brought in a music facilitator for the last year of filming. It created a fantastic buzz as the patients and staff heard themselves reach new levels of power in their songs. It was Hilary Brook's first time in a hospice, and like me, she was apprehensive before she arrived. Once she had met the patients and staff, however, we embarked on a shared journey that included laughter, tears, cake and comedy. The patients grew to have absolute trust that Hilary would help them find their best voice. I love it that Nicola changed the last word of the last chorus in the film--it is a confident expression of who she is, and what is happening to her — She ends the film with an invitation to the audience to "dream a little dream for me." It makes me cry.

These are extraordinary moments, or maybe they are ordinary moments. Ordinary, everyday heroes. That's as true for the staff as for the patients. It was a privilege to be allowed to "hang out" for four years. There is a lovely story told that I think sums up the interplay of observational life and song in this film — Fionn Mac Cumhail, the legendary Irish chieftain asked his warriors to tell him what sound they thought was the best music. They came up with many examples but he kept shaking his head. Then he told them, "The music of what happens, that is the sweetest music in the world."

Amy Hardie, Director/Producer