PBS Premiere: June 24, 2013Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: In your own words can you describe what is about?

Turner: Homegoings is a documentary exploring African American funeral traditions, funeral rituals through the personal story of Isaiah Owens, a funeral home director in Harlem and the community that he serves.

POV: So how were you introduced to this story and at what point did you decide you had to make a film about it? What drew you to funerals in particular?

Turner: I actually came across an article in the newspaper several years ago about this particular man and how he had a reputation for beautifying the dead. And when I read the article I was immediately taken back to the first open casket funeral I had attended, which was of my grandmother. And for one reason or another I kept returning to that article and I kept thinking about it. At the same time, I knew that there was very much this rich tradition behind African American funeral directors and funerals. And I was interested in exploring that.

POV: So tell me a little bit more about Isaiah Owens. Once you met him, what was it about him that you found so compelling?

Turner: Typically when we think of funeral directors, we think of undertakers, we think of someone who's going to be sort of cold. And he was really the opposite of that. And I saw that and I saw the way he was with his families, with his clients. And I wanted to understand what it was that was driving him to do this work that he was so passionate about.

POV: Well in the film it seems like he discovered that passion at an early age really.

Turner: Yeah, I think that passion absolutely came from a very early age. And he as a young child, as young as five years old, had this fascination with death and with funerals. And it was something that I think his family was actually really bothered by. But for him, it ended up being this place where he felt very comfortable. And so he would have mock funerals as a kid. And it started out that he buried a matchstick and other household items and then would hold funeral services for them. The way that young kids play house, he played funeral.

POV: Your initial reaction might be, you know well that's morbid, but in fact when you meet him and you get to know him, he's this vibrant character that's sort of counter to that.

Turner: Yes, he deals with death every day and he does deal with some of the more morbid aspects. But at the same time, I think that what makes him so exceptional at what he does is his ability to relate to the families who are going through this really difficult time. Sure, it's making up the dead. It's doing that sort of cosmetology work. But the other part of it is serving the living. And he really is able to do sort of both of those things and do them really well.

POV: Can you talk about the funeral industry as a marketplace and how Owens Funeral Home sort of fits into that context or differentiates itself?

Turner: I think the funeral business in Harlem has always been this, for a really long time anyway, thriving mom and pop funeral home business. But certainly over the last 30 years you've seen a decline of that, for a lot of different reasons. But Isaiah Owens has been able to be one of the few funeral homes that has managed to sort of survive. And so he's fortunate in that he's able to sort of carry on this tradition that has really emerged since post-slavery. It was a profession that there were fewer barriers to entry for many African Americans. And in fact, it became very much a thriving business for many African Americans throughout Jim Crow and into the second half of the current century.

POV: Why are funeral homes consolidating under corporations?

Turner: I think there's a few different things that are happening certainly in the business. One is there is the consolidation of funeral homes, larger businesses buying up funeral homes. But also I think there are changes in terms of the demographics in Harlem, in terms of gentrification and so it's been difficult for different mom and pop funeral homes to survive. Also, there's a change in sort of the tradition and the way that people would like to have funerals. That the idea of the traditional funeral I think has changed throughout different generations. And so there's been shifts in the kinds of funerals that people would like to have. I also think that the economic downturn certainly has played an effect and a role. You know people can't necessarily afford have the kind of traditional funeral they might have and he certainly found that at the time of the recession, more people were likely to have direct cremations.

POV: Now you have an incredible collection of archival images that you weave into the film. Can you talk a little bit about that, where those came from and how you use them?

Turner: I did most of the archival research at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which is a branch of the New York Public Library. And a good number of them were by the photographer, Austin Hansen. And I came across these photographs and felt that they very much could relay a sense of history and tradition about this particular practice in place of sort of the traditional talking head expert or historian. But really, one of the things that inspired me to make this film was a book by James Van Der Zee called The Harlem Book of The Dead. And it's this incredible book of photographs, of mortuary photographs, of African Americans standing typically in a funeral parlor with their loved one and posing. And many of these people, at the time, would pay him, James Van Der Zee, and others like him to take these portraits. It was something that they wanted to keep for themselves as a memory. And I think that that's still the case today.

POV: Can you talk a little bit about the process of filmmaking for you? Do you storyboard? Do you write an outline? How do you, how do you approach the nuts and bolts of telling a story and what kind of challenges you know does that involve as well?

Turner: I mean for me it starts with a lot of research. Initially I spoke to Mr. Owens, talked to him a lot about his work. And then from there it's about sort of drafting an outline and a treatment for what you might imagine the film will look like. Of course you never know. And so a lot of observational filmmaking is just about spending time with your characters and about getting to know them and getting to see the ins and outs of what they do. Of course you always want to have a sense of where you're going. And then you know you prepare as much as you can prepare and then be open for all of the surprises that, that come along.

POV: What's happening with this film beyond the broadcast on POV?

Turner: We're finding that the film has been a really unique way into this topic of death and end of life care and some of these issues that we find difficult to talk about. And so it's being screened in all different places. And people are not just talking about the film, but talking about, with their families, these difficult issues. There's also a lesson plan that has been made for high schoolers. And so high schoolers are watching the film and talking about it and talking about the different funeral traditions that they've experienced and sharing that with one another. So it's amazing to see that it's both in schools and out there in the community and that people are talking about the film, but really talking about the issues, and confronting their own kinds of decisions that they may have to make at some point.

POV: This is your first feature length film. Any advice for emerging or first time filmmakers?

Turner: Filmmaking, obviously it's a long process, particularly documentary filmmaking. I think when you're out there on your own, it can be really useful to find a mentor, find someone who, or find some people who can support you along the way. And trust in your vision. And follow those things that you feel intuitively are drawing you to the subject matter. Follow those impulses that you have. And be open to hearing feedback from others. And just support yourself. Find people who can support you and that can give you advice. Because sometimes it takes a long time to get these things done. And it sometimes, it can feel like you're working in a vacuum, but if you keep at it, you'll eventually finish that film.

POV: Eventually.

Turner: Eventually.

POV: So there are some side projects that you're working on in conjunction I guess with Homegoings, can you talk about those?

Turner: You know one of the opportunities I had on this film was to be able to work with a really great composer. And at some point in the process of making the film while we were editing, I was listening to a lot of this music. At the same time I was listening to a lot of the soundbites from the film. And I somehow got the idea that I wanted to take a different formal approach. I wanted to sort of experiment with the documentary form. And try and do something a little different with some of the material I shot. And I had this idea of creating a dance because one of the things that I observed at many of the funerals is the importance that the music plays in the funeral services, and also this idea of dance. And my composer was kind enough to introduce me to a talented choreographer named Janet Won. She choreographed a dance using and drawing on some of the score from the film. And we filmed this dance and combined it with some of the, some of the interview from the actual documentary in order to create this new piece, this new dance, which incorporates the different elements from the film. So it's a very different, more experimental approach to the subject matter, but also incorporates some of the same themes. And it's just sort of a different way of experiencing some of the ideas in Homegoings.

POV: Now you've had great success at screenings and festivals, what is it that people are connecting with in this film?

Turner: Yeah, the reactions to the film have been really interesting. And I think that people have really responded to different things. One thing that I've heard a lot of is that, for the first time, especially for younger people, they're thinking about what they might have to do when they lose a parent. And for a lot of people, they haven't thought about that, they haven't thought about the sort of practical elements of what that might look like. For others it reminds them of certainly going through that process or having lost somebody. I think though that people are also finding it to be a very uplifting film, which I think is, is really nice. I think that people when they hear about this film, they think, ooh, death, I don't want to watch that. But, in some ways the film is very much about life really, as much as it is about death. And so I think that preciousness of life is something that I certainly was reminded of while I was filming and hopefully that's something that people feel when they watch the film.