Interpretation vs. Memory: Creative Approaches to an Autoethnographic Depiction of Grief

How can we appraise the relative merits of subjective and objective approaches to narrative storytelling when attempting to convey the lived experience of grief empathetically and authentically?

This project builds upon the Brigstow funded An Empathetic Realisation of Embodied Grief in Fiction Film (2019) – which led to the production of the short practice-as-research films Lost Property (Dawson, Hay, Rosling, 2022) and Nothing Echoes Here (Hay, 2022) – in its exploration of representing grief in films in a more nuanced and phenomenologically-minded manner than is generally the case (grief has traditionally been used in purely narrative terms in fiction cinema).

The first film in this project, Lost Property, embraced a collaborative and inter-disciplinary approach to its grief narrative, that included integrating perspectives from grief and bereavement counsellors (The Harbour and Cruse Bereavement Care), a creative writer and humanities scholar (Lesel Dawson), a funeral celebrant (Dee Ryding), and interviews with the recently bereaved organised by The Harbour and Cruse Bereavement Care. The second, Nothing Echoes Here, foregrounded film language (specifically shallow depth of field, hand-held cinematography, and a near-absence of dialogue) to empathetically convey the lived-experience of grief. This third film – currently untitled – will adopt a highly novel and experimental approach to autoethnographic filmmaking.

What does the project involve? 

The film, whilst being a fiction drama, is based directly on the immediate aftermath of the death of the primary researcher’s (Jimmy Hay) father. Covering the evening, night and following morning, it will attempt to recreate – through memory and an adoption of various elements of film language – the precise emotions and lived experience of this event. The entirely subjective nature of this recreation will be completed by Hay editing the final film also.

Alongside this, a second version of the film will be created via objective editing by an external collaborator – Professor Rob Stone (University of Birmingham). Stone will not have been privy to the script, will not be on set, and will not have discussed the pre-production, filming – or indeed the real-life events of that evening – with Hay at any point. He will only be given identical raw footage and sound recordings. By doing so, Stone’s edit will be dictated entirely by an objective viewing of the raw footage itself and his interpretation of it. Such an approach will allow the project to appraise the relative merits of subjective and objective approaches to narrative storytelling when attempting to convey the lived experience of grief empathetically and authentically.

In addition to a focus on editing, this project also intends to collaborate with an award-winning Sound Designer (Jo Jackson) from the outset, to explore the role of sound design in conveying subjective, emotional experience. Jackson will work with Hay in the development and pre-production stages of the film to create an affective soundscape and score for the film. Jackson will then work independently with Hay and Stone to professionally integrate, edit, and mix the soundscape, bespoke to each edit.

 Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Jimmy Hay (Film and Television, University of Bristol) 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.
  • Rob Stone (Film and Creative Writing, University of Birmingham) is a researcher whose research and publications currently focus on the dynamics of World Cinema with particular emphasis on American Independent Cinema. Their research interests are in the overlap of philosophy, politics and aesthetics and they have also published extensively on Spanish, Basque and Cuban cinema.
  • Jo Jackson (BAFTA Breakthrough) is an award winning sound designer and editor known for their work on No Time to Die (2021), The Northman (2022), and ’71 (2014).

What will be the results?

The project plans to screen both films (approximately 15 minutes in length each) together, with no indication of which version is which, before asking audiences to reflect via qualitative questionnaires on the affective merits of each film. This will provide invaluable insights on the creative research process which will be essential to a large grant application that this project is building towards.

The film itself will be published in either Screenworks or [in]Transition. Moreover, Hay, Jackson, and Stone will also collaborate on a co-authored article, reflecting on the creative process and evaluating the audience responses, for publication.