Back to IndieWire

LFF Women Directors: Lynette Wallworth – ‘Tender’

LFF Women Directors: Lynette Wallworth - 'Tender'

Lynette Wallworth is an Australian
artist/filmmaker whose immersive video installations and film works reflect on
the connections between people and the natural world and explore fragile states of grace. Her work has been shown at arts venues and festivals
around the world, and she has been awarded many international fellowships, most
recently the inaugural Australian Film, Television and Radio
School Creative Fellowship in 2010 and the AIDC David and Joan Williams
Documentary Fellowship in 2014. Her most recent works include Coral, an immersive film for full-dome digital planetariums with an augmented reality companion work, and the feature
documentary Tender. (Tender official site)

Tender will play at the London Film Festival on October 18 and 19.

W&H: Please give us your description
of the film playing.

LW: Tender
is a feature documentary about a community group in a small industrial village
in Australia who have the radical notion to start a not-for-profit, community-run
funeral service. They believe that caring for one another at the end of life is
the ultimate last act of love, and they want to shift this process from the
professional to the personal. They go about educating themselves on how
they might take back control of one of the most essential moments of life: its
end.

One of the key members of the group is diagnosed with cancer right at the beginning of the venture, so all does not
go to plan. But every moment is met with love and humor. Tender is surprisingly funny, raw, and very moving, largely due to
the big personalities in this little township and their devotion to building a
better community.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

LW: The subject matter of Tender is universal; everyone deals with grief, loss, and the
struggle to meet that crucial moment in a way that honors the one who has died
and facilitates the grieving process. That essentially is what drew me to the
subject. Many of my previous artworks have dealt with grief and resilience, so Tender is a natural extension of those
works. Plus, I love stories of community. In fact, I am quite obsessed with work
that strengthens or illustrates community. I think that’s possibly a reflection
on a female perspective.

I am not interested in hero stories, where an
individual defies the odds alone to generate change. Rather, I am compelled by
stories of solidarity and the effect of people of disparate viewpoints coming
together with a common goal.  

Tender

is just such a story. This community group was challenged financially by the
cost of funerals, and they were challenged emotionally by feeling remote and
distant as a result of the professionalizing of a significant life event. They solved these
issues by generating a solution that meant they could take back control of end-of-life [proceedings] in their small community. And their solution, whilst solving the
financial burden, also allows them to help one another more fully participate
in the process of saying farewell to the dead. It’s really a wonderful story that
sheds light on grief, loss, family, and the family of friends that we find in
life.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge
in making the film?

LW: The biggest challenges in making Tender were largely ethical ones, as
they naturally should be when filming real people who are facing the loss of
someone they love and one person who is starkly confronting his own mortality. The
story of Tender unfolded from the
moment we began shooting, but it wasn’t anticipated. I went there to film the
community’s attempts to start the not-for-profit funeral service, but the
community member who became ill only received his diagnosis a couple of weeks
before filming started, so really we landed in the middle of a quickly unfolding
drama.

The biggest challenge was balancing the layers of information-sharing
that happened in this scenario, because sometimes things were said to camera
that were not being shared with the community. Sometimes we knew things that
the community more broadly did not. That is understandable, I think — people take
the opportunity to commit something to film that they cannot otherwise say — but
how and when I shared that information was a delicate balance, and I would even
say somewhat of a burden.

I had to decide what my role was in sharing those
outpourings with community members, as well as holding my focus on how to shape
these moments into a film. I wanted to honor the community fully and make
the best film I possibly could, and I did not want to do one at the expense of
the other, so it required a constant thoughtfulness and a constant eye from both
the outside and the inside to remain committed to both. Happily, I think I
achieved it.

W&H: What do you want people to
think about when they are leaving the theatre?

LW: Mostly I want people to watch the film with
someone they love, then turn to each other and say, “Let’s talk about this now.”
I dearly hope to make dealing with death seem less formidable than we are prone
to, as well as to prompt the realization that, if we find the way to have discussions now
about what we want at end of life, it will save much pain and angst later. 

Also,
I really hope that the film goes a long way in removing the fear of seeing the
dead and being with the dead. I don’t mean if there are cultural protocols
around this. I just mean if there is fear around this, then I hope Tender will help to alleviate those fears. 

During the process of interviewing people for the
film, I always asked about everyone’s experience of death. Many of these
interviews did not make their way into the final cut, but they really informed
my thinking on what helps us, generally, in the grieving process. I was struck
by how many times those who had been able to spend time with the body of a
loved one said almost the same thing, word for word. They would say with a
voice full of quiet surprise: “She was gone, she wasn’t there anymore.” Or: “He
was gone.”

When they said these words, they were not said with sadness, but with
clarity. That deep-felt knowing might sound like a small thing, and maybe it
sounds like an obvious thing, but I have heard too many stories of protracted
grief to think otherwise. I think we are physical beings, and our knowing comes
as much through our fingertips as it does through our thoughts and words. It
seems to me that touching the body of someone who has died helps us to know
deep in our hearts that “they are gone.” And, with that knowing, grief is
helped, our mind and our hearts and our bodies can grasp that death has come, and we can grieve and, eventually, in time, let go of grief.

So that is
my hope: to not fear the dead body, but to imagine we might be able to care for
our loved ones ourselves at death, and even after death.

W&H:
What advice do you have for other female directors?

LW: In terms of your team, choose experience where
it will benefit you and choose talent where you want to deviate from the
traditional path. You need people with experience to back you,
to be in your corner and back your decisions. When it comes to challenges from
investors, for example, experience carries weight. But you also need to work
with people who are not too set in their ways if your process of directing
might deviate from the norm. So then choose talent over experience in your HODs
[Heads of Department], and you won’t have to battle so much to get your way.

Second, work with a producer who understands your
process. My producer Kath Shelper was very comfortable with trusting the
explorative process we undertook, even though on paper we really didn’t know
what we were going to be able to shoot. I work instinctively, and because Kath
does too, she didn’t panic. I am used to finding the work as it reveals itself; that
is a large part of what I do as a visual artist. To transpose that approach to
filmmaking requires keeping your nerve, and having Kath be completely supportive
of that process helped me enormously.

W&H: What’s the biggest
misconception about you and your work?

LW: I work in many forms — long-form film, interactive
video installation, immersive video installation, photography — and I think
perhaps the misconception is that I am moving from one to the next in some sort
of linear way, i.e., now that I have begun making films, many people think that I
have “moved on” from video installation. But the truth is that I make the work
in the form that most suits the subject matter, and I will continue to do that.
I think I can keep making films and keeping make installations, and both will
inform the other but not negate the other. One form is not more powerful than
the other for me; they both offer different ways of communicating an idea, and I
want to keep exploring the creative processes of both.

W&H: How did you get your film
funded?

LW: Tender
was funded through a really great initiative set up by the Adelaide Film
Festival and supported by our federal government’s film-financing fund, Screen
Australia, in partnership with the national broadcaster, ABC TV, and our major arts-funding body, Australia Council for the Arts. We got some additional
funding from the New South Wales state government. Those are all state or federal government
agencies that support the arts here in Australia. The fund was called HIVE, and
it was designed to support artists who had not previously worked in film to
develop new creative work for cinema that could be premiered at the Adelaide
Film Festival and later be broadcast. It’s a strikingly supportive environment
in which to make a film, because the expectation is that a visual artist coming
to film might inherently solve things differently and explore the medium in a
way that comes from that training.

So I don’t know how much help I can offer on
the subject of financing, as I consider myself enormously fortunate to have had
the backing of funders, even though I didn’t have [a particular advantage]. I can say
that funding risk seems to be essential to any strong screen culture, and as
women, we need to stick to our vision and not be corralled into making “safe
choices.” We need funders and backers who are not risk-averse but, rather, who
delight in experimentation.

W&H:
Name your favorite women-directed film
and why.

LW: I have to name two. I have huge
admiration for Shirin Neshat and her first feature, 2009’s Women Without Men. She, too, comes from the visual arts; I have long been a fan of her installation work. She is a woman
who cannot return to her homeland, and I love the fierce forcefulness of her
decision to make a work about gender issues in 1950s Iran despite being banned
from the country. The themes of the film around forms of resilience in women
are close to my heart, and I am deeply moved by the intense, surreal visual
language of this highly political work.

Secondly, when Jane Campion made The Piano, it was a hugely defining
moment for women in film. It’s a sublimely beautiful film about
the ability of women to make their own choices in their passions. Like many
films from Australia and New Zealand, landscape plays a central character. I
was completely entranced when I first saw it and the way it reflected the impact
of nature on the psyche in this part of the world. That was a watershed
moment in film. I have remained inspired by the clarity of Campion’s vision in
constructing such a stunning work.

This Article is related to: Interviews and tagged , , ,