An Empathetic Realisation of Embodied Grief in Fiction Film

How do you create sensitive and authentic cinematic representations of grief? Will multiple voices offer a balanced, holistic perspective or will it universalise and generalise the grieving process in an unhelpful way?

Fiction cinema often relegates grief to a mere plot device. It can offer superficial depictions that fail to capture the lived experience of mourning in emotional, psychological and physical terms. These screen depictions can be misleading and dangerous, either negating the real impact of grief or constructing a mourning process that dissipates and ends. Academic discourses on grief and mourning have contested this model in favour of a more refined understanding of the highly complex and multifaceted experience of grief.

What did the project involve? 

This practice-as-research project attempted to empathetically represent lived experiences of grief on screen using the formal elements of film language (cinematography, mise-en-scène, sound design, etc). The project sought to explore the potentials in representing grief in a more nuanced and phenomenologically-minded manner. It wanted to capture the lived experience of grief in a fiction film whilst contributing meaningfully to the discourse on practice-as-research.

The research critically reflected on the research process, highlighting challenges with creative practice-research in both the artist-led approach and collaboration. It contrasted the role of autoethnography in authentically and sensitively representing a personal and individual representation of grief with the multiple experiences, expertise and points of view present in the interdisciplinary collaboration.

During the project the team worked with bereavement care counselling services, and the research also explored the potential wellbeing impact of using film for the purposes of therapy and bereavement support.

To do this, the team created a broadcast quality fiction film exploring embodied grief. The researchers worked together to represent the lived experience of grief through the collation of a wide range of experiences. This film explored the extent to which narrative, sound, and cinematic techniques that foreground sensory experience can capture the raw experience of grief.

Additionally, the project team documented the research process and development through a series of recorded interviews.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Jimmy Hay (Film and Television) is a filmmaker and lecturer with experience of UK-wide cinematic release. He brings his expertise in the fusion of theory and practice with audio-visual interrogation of cognition and emotion in filmmaking. Jimmy leads the Medical Humanities Cluster’s ‘Grief’ research strand.
  • Lesel Dawson’s (English) research focuses on the history of psychology, focusing on how representations of the experience of grief and the meanings attributed to it have changed over time. Lesel has published academic work on the history of emotions and on theatrical and cinematic representations of grief.
  • Natasha Rosling is an artist exploring traditions surrounding our contact with dead bodies as part of the grieving process. She explores the cultural need to physically preserve, metamorphosise or consume the dead. Natasha uses writing, sound, experience design and installation in her work.
  • Sam Thomas (The Harbour) and Ed Johnson (Cruse Bereavement Care) will involve bereavement counsellors to provide testimonies of counselling bereaved individuals. They will share recurring themes, emotions and experiences that emerge. The Harbour provides free counselling services for people suffering from bereavement and serious illness in Bristol. Similarly, Cruse Bereavement Care is a national bereavement counselling organisation.

What were the results?

The final product of an empathetic realisation of Embodied Grief in Fiction Film was the film Lost Property which was premiered during the Wellcome Trust funded festival “Good Grief, Bristol” organised by the newly founded organisation “Good Grief Festival”.

The researchers published an article in Research for All entitled ‘Therapeutic creativity and the lived experience of grief in the collaborative fiction film Lost Property’.

The research team desired to take this project further to continue exploring cinematic representations of grief and produce a feature-length fiction film that employs empathetic aesthetics in order to represent the lived experience of grief. They achieved this and during the research development undertook a handful of other Brigstow funded projects. One in 2021 called Creative Grieving and one in 2022 called the Good Grief Short Film Festival.