This Love Affair with Funerals: 'Homegoings'

Homegoings refers to cycles, journeys to a place where those who passed before you are waiting, and also where you will wait to embrace those coming after.


Director: Christine Turner
Cast: Isaiah Owens, Seleste Burns, Linda Williams-Miller, Willie Mae Owens-Ross, Lillie Owens, Christopher Owens
Rated: NR
Studio: Peralta Pictures, Inc., American Documentary
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-02-27 (MoMA Documentary Fortnight)
"I was never interested in giving a historical overview of the subject or using outside experts to contextualize the experiences of the subjects in the film. For me, I just wanted to hear from ordinary people, whether it was the funeral director himself or the grieving family members he serves. They are the real experts."

-- Christine Turner

"It's good you're doing this, because they would be in a tizzy." Funeral director Isaiah Owens sits at his wide wooden desk, across from Linda Williams-Miller. She's come by to make arrangements, not because she has a particular problem or diagnosis, she assures him, but just because, well, she's been "sick a lot," and, you know, you never know. And so Isaiah works with Linda, currently in her late 50s, on the budget, the dress, and even her signature red hair color. Linda doesn’t want her children to be "in a tizzy." And so she and her daughter make arrangements with Isaiah -- hopefully, long before they might be needed. "It's going to happen eventually," she says, smiling warmly.

Indeed. It's a point that Isaiah makes more than once in Homegoings, Christine Turner's lovely documentary about his funeral business. Screening at MoMA's Documentary Fortnight on 28 February, the film opens on a shot of trees and sky, shot from below, a look up into a beyond. "When I was a child, I created make-believe funerals. People thought that I was strange," Isaiah says in voiceover, "because I was having this love affair with funerals, and I guess death and dying, of course. No one understood it and death always made people very, very uncomfortable, especially my mother. Now they just realize that I was just born to do what I'm doing."

It's not everyone who knows so early in life what he's "born to be doing," but both Isaiah and his mother, Willie-Mae Owens-Ross, describe his work as a kind of calling. She remembers her young son in Branchville, South Carolina devising ceremonies for chickens and cats and neighbors' dogs: "Anything that he found dead, he buried, have a funeral." For Isaiah, the process is about respect, about caring for the departed and also those left behind, easing a difficult transition for all. It's also a business, with an office in Branchville (where his mother still works as a receptionist two days a week) and in Harlem. He describes his work in loving terms, and the film illustrates what he says, in a series of delicate, detailed images, increasingly revealing.

When at first you see Isaiah at work, the camera cuts to him from a close shot of a wig, ready and perched atop a Styrofoam head; Isaiah is bent over the corpse, his figure obscuring your view. He wears blue medical gloves, as he injects "liquid tissue," which he describes as "probably a first cousin to Botox," one of many literal and metaphorical connections he draws between living and dead bodies. This lady is 98 years old, he observes, adding, "I'm going to need some Crazy Glue." Later scenes of Isaiah at work show more, a face being made up, fingers being arranged, watery-red fluid swirling beneath a body toward a drain.

While these details of death might make some people "uncomfortable, for Isaiah, they're inextricable from the other steps in the process. Bodies are prepared for services, designed to console families and celebrate lives. The film provides images of this part of the work as well, preachers in full throat, as well as tearful mourners leaned over coffins and celebrants, their arms held overhead, their bodies swaying, their church full of joyful cries. This sort of celebration may not be unique to black American funerals, Isaiah notes, but it has evolved from a specific set of experiences, from ancestors who sought to memorialize their losses and also imagine a liberation on the other side. "For the slaves," he says, "death meant freedom, it meant they would meet a judge that would be just and fair to them. Even for us today, death brings us justice."

Here Isaiah and the film provide a context for what he's been born to do, not only in the ritual of remembering and saying goodbye, but also in the meaning that death can bring to life -- a life that has passed and also lives that go on. The film notes in a series of incredible archival photos the commerce, ceremony. And crucial social and political functions of black funeral homes. When white companies wouldn’t deal with black bodies, the work still remained, often times as a result of violence in urban communities. "I've been called to do this work by a higher power," Isaiah feels certain, and when his own time comes, he'll be able to "check off one thing, that he's done a good job for the bodies, and never slighted anybody."

It's this sense of justice and continuity that Homegoings makes especially vibrant. The term itself refers to repetitions and cycles, journeys to a place where those who passed before you are waiting, and also where you will wait to embrace those coming after. If, during your corporeal life, you are left with "some pictures or some memories," in going home, you are immersed. As Isaiah looks over pictures of his father, a sharecropper, he remembers and he looks forward too. His own son, Chris, takes up the family business, though, as he puts it, "I like the business aspect of the business. Dealing with the family members is too emotion for me personally." You can see this, and so you appreciate Isaiah all the more.


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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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