THIS weekend’s mini film festival, Films on Our Friend Death: An African Perspective, saw screenings of three very different works; a comedy, a drama and a documentary.
At first glance, the two films screened on Friday and Saturday could not be more different. No Time to Die is a romantic comedy with a musical hearse and a coffin shaped like an aeroplane taking central roles; Guelwaar is a tense and political story of religious strife in Senegal. However, both were pervaded by themes of death: its inevitablity, its practicalities, and its centrality to life. They are dropping like flies, the chief undertaker in No Time to Die comments. It’s very good for business.
These themes were put under the microscope on Sunday night with two documentaries, Twenty Takes on Death and Dying and Funeral Season, followed by a panel discussion with representatives from the church, the military and palliative care, many with experience of African countries.
Over the course of both documentary and discussion, the contrast between African and European funeral practices and attitudes towards death was evident; Matthew Lancit’s film uses Jewish funeral practices and attitudes as a counterpoint to what he documents in Cameroon. In the ensuing discussion, one question recurred: what can we learn from African attitudes to death?
The contrast betweeen Twenty Takes on Death and Dying and Funeral Season was marked. Those interviewed in the former were often uncomfortable; some showed signs of suppressed emotion, others viewed the subject matter as distant and irrelevent. In the latter, funerals are discussed as casually as the weather – the title comes from a conversation in which an interviewee comments that they cannot have funerals in the rainy season.
Two differences between African and European attitudes proved particularly notable. The first is that in Cameroon and many other parts of African the time between death and funeral is generally far longer than the traditional Christian five days, and it was generally agreed that this is far healthier. One audience member, who grew up in Ghana, talked about how she’d defied tradition by putting off a funeral for almost a month and caused much concern!
The second, and more subjective, difference is the different emphasis placed on communal and individual grieving. In this sense, it was concluded that African funeral practices are not necessarily any healthier or ‘better’ than European funerals because they are made into community events; the personal dimension cannot be denied.
Overall, it was agreed that we in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom could learn much from the longer mourning periods and particularly from the greater acceptance of death seen in films such as these; Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief, who commisioned Twenty Takes on Death and Dying, work to promote greater openness about death and dying.
As a final note, it’s important to take into account cultural differences, not just between continents but between countries. It’s too easy to talk about ‘Africa’ and ‘African funeral practices’ as a monolith; as Guelwaar demonstrates, radically different burial practices can co-exist within not only the same countries but the same towns and villages; for all the talk of ‘African’ longer mourning periods, in No Time to Die characters express surprise at a family waiting seven weeks to hold a funeral due to delays; and Funeral Season makes it clear that many of Cameroon’s funeral practices are unique and distinctive. Though there are common threads, these three films show the diversity as well as (a degree of) unity in African attitudes and practices.
(c) Katie MacFadyen is a fourth year student of Classics at the University of Edinburgh, about to start a dissertation in Reception Studies: the study of how classics is and has been used in subsequent cultural contexts. She also writes speculative fiction and theatre, as well as film and book reviews. Her theatre reviews from the Fringe Festival 2011 can be found on http://thenewkid.co.uk and http://somesuchlike.wordpress.com. She is a media intern for the Festival of Spirituality and Peace 2012 and contributes regularly to Spirituality and Peace News.