The act of killing people — mostly with the emphasis on “act” — has entertained audiences since the beginnings of show business. But confronting death itself — the highly personal, existential certainty of nullification — has not had as much appeal.
Richard Tilkin, Boston-based documentarian, doesn’t think that such denial is a healthy approach to life’s only inevitability and its greatest mystery. In his debut documentary feature “Aside From That” (as in, “Aside From that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”) he discusses the subject with a wide range of mortals, including psychiatrists, philosophers, gravely ill people, a traumatized vet, religious figures, comedian Steven Wright, and a guy in Santa Fe with a parrot on his shoulder.
On the phone from his Boston office, he explains how and why he made a film (details at www.aftdoc.com) about a subject that has bugged him since he was 5 years old.
Q. Isn’t 5 a bit young to ponder death?
A. I don’t know about that, but when I was that age and I asked what happens when people get older I was told that everyone dies. I was like, come on, that can’t be right. Since then, whenever I would think about it, whenever I went back to that place, I would feel depressed. That knowledge always just sitting there. I was shocked that other people didn’t want to talk about it. It was just very taboo.
Q. Making a film about death is like making a film about life. How did you narrow the topic down?
A. There are obviously a million paths we could have gone down, so we hammered out a treatment. First, we wanted experts. We interviewed people like Dr. John Wynn, who’s a death anxiety expert, and Roshi Joan Halifax, who is a famous American Zen priest and end-of-life expert. And the rest happened organically as we started exploring. I also knew we wanted to interview people in the street and we met a lot of interesting people that way.
Q. Do you think kids should become aware of the facts of death at an early age, like yourself?
A. Dr. Wynn says that if you don’t talk about it with them they can sense your sadness anyway. They can sense that there’s something wrong. In general, he points out that people don’t fully understand how profound it is if you don’t face your mortality, how such denial can have a negative effect on many things.
Q. Now that you’ve tackled death, what is there left to face as a documentary maker?
A. My new documentary is about people living with unusual and striking names and how those names have affected their lives. The working title is “The Strange Name Movie.” To date we have profiled 28 people. You might say it’s on the other end of the documentary spectrum.Interview was edited and condensed. Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.