An Empathetic Realisation of Embodied Grief in Fiction Film

How do you create sensitive and authentic cinematic representations of grief? This practice-as-research project attempts to empathetically represent lived experiences of grief on screen using the formal elements of film language (cinematography, mise-en-scène, sound design, etc).

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.  This project aims to explore the potentials in representing grief in a more nuanced and phenomenologically-minded manner. It will seek to capture the lived experience of grief in a fiction film whilst contributing meaningfully to the discourse on practice-as-research.

The research will critically reflect on the research process, highlighting challenges with creative practice-research in both the artist-led approach and collaboration. It contrasts 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. Will multiple voices offer a balanced, holistic perspective or will it universalise and generalise the grieving process in an unhelpful way?

Working with bereavement care counselling services, the research will also explore the potential wellbeing impact of using film for the purposes of therapy and bereavement support.

What is being created?

The team will create a broadcast quality fiction film exploring embodied grief. The team will work together to represent the lived experience of grief through the collation of a wide range of experiences. This film will explore the extent to which narrative, sound, and cinematic techniques that foreground sensory experience can capture the raw experience of grief.

Additionally, the project team will document 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's next?

An empathetic realisation of Embodied Grief in Fiction Film will be premiered during the Wellcome Trust funded festival “Good Grief, Bristol”.

The research team would like 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.

“Within this project it was really special to see an academic working in a new type of collaboration and how a personal experience of death is being turned into an experience for others.” Brigstow