Eighty-two-year-old Daphne Reed is married to and madly in love with a man 30 years her juinor. She's been thinking a lot about death recently, and about the future years her husband will likely spend without her.
Producer Nora Harrington talked with Daphne and others about their fears and beliefs about mortality. After her 53-year-old father died, Harrington wondered if becoming more familiar with death would make it easier to deal with. Through a series of brave and deeply personal conversations with elderly friends and her own mother, Harrington comes to understand the value of talking about a subject most choose to avoid.
Nora Harrington is a recent graduate of Hampshire College, where she studied cultural anthropology, written ethnography, and radio documentary. Little Black Train is her first full-length feature documentary. She doesn't plan to continue in radio for the time being, and will probably be learning about farming for the next six months. She recently moved from her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, to her mom's house near Seattle, Washington.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Nora Harrington
Little Black Train was produced for a course you're taking, right? Why was audio your preference in tackling the subject of death, rather than print or photography?
Little Black Train was part of my senior project at Hampshire College. It took me five months, or two academic semesters, to complete it.
I spent most of my career at Hampshire studying written ethnography. I switched to radio in the hopes that the medium would help me to more adequately express the fascination I felt during my interviews. Written ethnography can be pretty boring pretty easily. In radio, it is easier to share the richness of my interactions with the interviewees, although it is more difficult to remind the audience that what they are hearing is a three-minute bite of a very long interview (life).
Did you interview anybody besides those who ended up in the piece? How did you choose who to include?
I recorded 16 interviews for the project and used five of them. The selection process was pretty easy, actually. First of all, some of the first interviewees were not elders and when I decided that elders would be the population that I featured in the piece, it was easy to let those first interviews walk the plank. After that, it was a matter of sifting through my interviews and finding the parts that were most interesting to me. I knew I wanted to include my mom as a way to structure the piece. The other four voices just kind of emerged as the people who both held my attention and didn't repeat each other too much. Two weeks before the premier, I cut a wonderful interviewee named Gigi. She had astounding things to say about her experiences with death, but transitioning into her interview was too difficult. That was the only tough omission for me.
For a story about such a serious topic, there's a good amount of light humor and laughter in Little Black Train, especially between you and your mom. What's the role of humor in this conversation?
That's a great question and I have wondered a lot about it. For one thing, my mom is a person who recognizes the humor in dark places. I think that's part of it. At times in the interview, both my mom and I used humor to talk about things that were too dark to talk about seriously. But I didn't include any of that in the documentary. The parts that are funny in the documentary are just a reflection of how we talk about anything. There's no "this is a serious subject" and this is a light one. Its just us talking about something and letting our humor arise as much as it would in almost any conversation. I think there is probably some deep philosophy or psychology here that I'm too close to, to see, but that's how I feel about the conversation when I conjure it up in my memory.
Did conducting these interviews without a camera allow you to ask more intimate/personal questions about death?
I don't think my grandfather or Daphne would have been interviewed if there had been a visual component. My mom might have had a hard time with it, too. I have found that interviewees tend to share more if they can forget that they are being recorded. As long as I was using a table stand, my interviewees didn't take long to forget the microphone. I imagine it is more difficult to achieve that with film. Don't you have to adjust your shots?
I can say also that sometimes it is helpful in an interview to look away from the person when they are explaining something vulnerable -- it allows the interviewee to sink into their reaction to the question a little more because they are not being watched. If you're filming them, they're always being watched. So, one could assume that they might not feel good about being as vulnerable and might not respond as deeply to the tough questions. But I've never worked with film.
Did you talk with anyone your age about death, as part of the project?
Many friends helped me at the beginning stages of the project with determining my questions and determining the viability of the project. In these conversations we talked about death and about their questions/concerns on the subject. But I never recorded them. I wanted to interview elders because I think it's sad that we don't ask for their advice more often. They have been here longer! As Daphne points out, it's pretty ridiculous. So, although it would have been interesting to contrast youth and elder perspectives on the topic, I didn't focus on it. My voice is in there a lot of course and touches into some of that contrast.
Has your responsibility toward/relationship with the people you interviewed changed as a result of "documenting" their thoughts about death?
Well, big question. I wrote a big paper on that. (You eager ethnography enthusiasts in the audience can read it here.)
It's hard to represent other people. It's a hard process to take somebody else's story, to take three to five minutes of it in fact, and to make it part of your point. All of them were brave and kind to participate and their participation vested me with a certain responsibility. I had a responsibility to make myself as vulnerable as I made them and to calibrate my representation of them as accurately as possible against my memory of what they really said. At the end of the day, the ethnographer has a lot of power, and that can be something to struggle against or something to accept and work with. I tried to work with it.
In terms of changing relationships, yes and no. I didn't have a relationship with Art or Daphne before the project and I still don't. I think it was helpful for me to hear about death from my mother. My grandpa and my relationship didn't change per se. Neither did my relationship to Ruth, who is still a good friend. A conversation like that certainly opens two people up to one another however, and that probably has lasting affects on all three of those relationships that I maintain.
You struck out to "familiarize" yourself with death, to comprehend it better, through talking to friends and family about death. Did this happen, and what did you learn about yourself during the process?
Another version of the ending narration begins: "Death is more familiar to me now." That's true. It doesn't feel like such a black hole anymore. Like I say in the documentary, though, I am not sure that it will be any less surprising next time it comes around.
Its funny, too -- I never talk about it anymore. That's ironic of course because in the last line of the documentary I say that "death is a conversation to keep having." Its a hard one to bring up though.