Seven Songs for a Long Life

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

Filmmaker Interview

Filmmaker Amy Hardie discusses the making of the film Seven Songs for a Long Life.

POV: I say welcome back because POV broadcast your previous film The Edge of Dreaming in 2010. I can't tell you how thrilled we are to have you back here. For someone who hasn't seen Seven Songs for a Long Life how would you describe the film?

Hardie: So Seven Songs for a Long Life is a film that takes us to a place that nobody really wants to go. I went into this small hospice in probably one of the very poorest areas of Scotland. You know who wants to go to hospice? Who wants to think about or even remember the fact that we're mortal, that we're all going to die? We spend all of our life not thinking about it. And yet, if we take that step over the threshold into hospice care, it's a place full of surprises. And that's what I found. I found a bunch of people who were coming to terms with the fact that they were going to die. So they were braver than most of us. And they didn't really want to talk to me, what they wanted to do was sing to me. And they sang me through four years of their life.

I think when you're given a disease diagnosis, when you become a patient, it's hard to remember that actually you're a human being. And the singing was their way of saying we're still here, we're more than patients. The singing allows us into that inner life. And so everyone there was carrying on, enjoying their life and in this peculiar state of not knowing whether they'd still be alive in three months, ten years, or twenty years. And in that situation, people sang to remember who they had been, they sang for each other. They were very aware we were making a film and they sing for the audience at the very end of the film.

POV: You were actually an artist-in-residence at Strathcarron, right? Tell me a little bit about how that came about, how you found Strathcarron.

Hardie: Well I had made The Edge of Dreaming, which was so great for me that you showed that on POV. And I had a wonderful response from U.S. audiences about it. One of the things that I did during that film was I had started filming my kids, when it looked as though my lung condition was irreversible and I might not survive that year. And I really wanted to make a record for the kids of how they were being brought up. The kind of record I wish that I would have had of my own mother before she died. And then I started doing it for other families, because I met people in the same situation that I had been in where one parent had a terminal disease and I would go in and I'd actually work with the whole family. And I'd train the kids how to use a camera. And it had a tremendous effect within the family. It wasn't just creating an archive, but it was also creating a channel of communication at a very difficult time. And people would see how the child looked to the parent, how the parent looked to the child. And I would project these in people's living rooms. So the hospice heard about this and saw these films and spoke to the families and asked if I would come in and maybe work like that in Strathcarron. But very quickly I got caught up in everybody's lives. You know the big and little dramas of what do you do when you think maybe you've only got six months left? How do you cope, how do you use the time left to you? And we made a film together.

POV: Song is sort of a unifying thread through the film. Is that what you brought to the project? Was this something you intended from the start, or was it something you notice about Strathcarron in particular?

Hardie: It is definitely something that I noticed about Strathcarron in particular because I'm tone deaf, I can't sing. I'm not at all musical. And it started when Tosh, who is a gentleman in his late sixties, said to me that the best thing that ever happened to him was a medal that he got for singing when he was 13. And I said, do you like singing? He said, I love singing. I said, would you sing for me now? He said, I've never sung in public. And I said, okay. He said, okay I'll sing for you. And he sang the song that we open the film with. And I was blown away. I felt that he was really offering something to everybody around him, to me, the camera and to the audience and reminding himself of who he was before he got this disease. And I found it very moving. And I made a little film just for him, of him singing. And then I also showed him, showed that little film in the hospice and lots of other patients then came out of the woodwork and said, you know, I can sing, or, she can sing, or, he can sing. Or you know, actually I really love dancing. I think there's something about just being able to express who you are and not always through sitting and talking.

POV: As an American watching your film, it feels like a Scottish film and I think it has something to do with how your characters embrace the song and I wonder if that's something about Scottish tradition or Scottish love of music. Do you recognize that in the film? Is that something that's inherently Scottish?

Hardie: Well Mandy the nurse in the film says that she feels that music is really quite a big part of Scottish sense of identity and also celebration. And it's interesting for me that when patients come to her, when she's trying to get to know them, she finds that music is often the easiest way to get a rapport. She finds out who they like to listen to, which bands they've gone to see. And if they sing, what they want to sing together. And she finds it almost a shortcut to knowing what kind of person they are and what they like.

POV: Strathcarron as exhibited in your film is clearly a remarkable place. Do you feel like that's a movement within Scotland in terms of hospice centers? Do you have a sense of whether that translates to what's happening in America as well?

Hardie: I mean I think the difference with the U.S. is hospice care can be seen as sort of last resort. It's what happens when people stop trying to cure you, so it can be seen as a kind of failure; whereas we don't see it that way at all. I think we see hospice care as the place where you go to add quality of life and to be given the chance to really think about how you want to spend your time. And where the real experts are in pain relief.

The hospice care used to be a building where you came in and, as people would say, you leave feet first. You'd really be there for quite a short time. But nowadays it's really different. Most hospices run a very large daycare center and that's a place that you'll be living at home, but you go in once a week and you have all your medical needs are looked after. So it's a place that you go where you know that you're going to be kept totally pain-free and in the case of Strathcarron, you'll also be able to have your hair done, you can meet other people. You can go to the art room or you can do crafts. You can have physio. You have a really good meal. And that I think is the way that hospice care is changing. It's much more that hospice is a relationship at a stage in your life and certainly the hospice care staff say that they want to meet people really as soon as possible after the disease diagnosis. And not just the patient but also the patient's family. They feel that they're there for everybody, not just that patient.

POV: What is it about song that connects people, that connects caregiver to patient or patient to patient in this place?

Hardie: I guess it's a sort of shared giving and taking of pleasure. And a song itself holds a lot. You know it holds the past, particularly if it's a song like a Sinatra song. And for people listening, they'll have heard that song before and that, that'll bring their own memories and their own experiences into play. And the song also is very much taking place in the present. You know all of these are filmed very quickly and only when the patient said to me, okay I want to sing a song now. And we never filmed for very long cause people don't have masses of energy. So we're filming for 15-20 minutes. And everyone is fully alive and fully attentive and fully present during that time that they're singing. And also somehow the song is a kind of promise to the future. You know those songs are going to be there after those people are no longer with us. So I think a song is a very moving kind of vehicle for emotion.

POV: What you hope that audiences take away after watching your film?

Hardie: This film is meant to do one very specific thing. It's meant to make it so easy and so gentle to be able to think about your own death or the death of somebody that you love close to you, that it just gives you that little bit of courage so that if you have to talk about an end of care life, you can. I think this film is about courage. I think I'm like most people, I don't want to think about death. I don't want to die. And I really salute those people who let me in to their life and showed me what happens when you do face it, because I feel through their good humor and their love and their willingness to share with the audience, they've shown me that it can be a really good place to be, a place filled with laughter, jokes, difficult decisions. I think they've shown me what courage is.