Carol Salter’s ‘Almost Heaven’ is a reflection on death and the fragility of life but also a reflection what it is like to be young and alive; a tender elegy to first love, friendship and caring for the dead.
The documentary film shows Ying Ling’s scruples and fears to participate in the intimate moments of the last farewell. He registers her fear of the ghosts who might be lurking in the crevator’s long corridors, but she also introduces the amused jokes with her colleague to whom a tender love story is beginning. A film about the growing up between bronze traditions and rapid progress, among spirits and dead.
‘Almost Heaven’ will screen at Berlinale 2017 on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, 15/16/18 February. Here, we present Carol Salter’s own introduction to her film.
Find all information & tickets for ‘Almost Heaven’ at Berlinale 2017 HERE
How were you first introduced to the subject behind this film? Why did you feel it was a story that you would be able to tell at the feature length level?
In 2014 I read an article about Chinese teenagers wanting to become morticians and learning to work with the dead, despite all the Chinese taboos and superstitions surrounding death. Immediately I knew I had to make a film about this subject.
The struggle of life against death is the most primal reality we face. This was brought home to me by the fear of losing my parents and was a strong motivation in making this film.
I was intrigued by the notion of young people who are just starting to learn about life, but through their job are faced with the cold reality of death every day. How would this affect them? Would it change their view of life? Would this just become like any other job? Or would it damage and even break them? In more universal terms, would the life force in them be strong enough to overcome the death that surrounded them?
As well as being intrigued by how these young morticians would think about and deal with their work. Like Chinese culture, in the West we avoid the topic of death, it is not much talked about. The care and respect these young people are taught when preparing the corpses was fascinating. Why wash and massage the corpses as if they could feel every moment of their touch? I wanted to capture the deep poignancy and tenderness inherent in this practice.
I decided to take a risk and go out to China on my own without production or financial support. I felt if I didn’t start filming, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to do so for a long time.
My parents have passed away during the making of this film. The process of making the film and seeing the young morticians prepare the bodies helped me in a number of ways. I felt more equipped to make decisions on the preparation of their bodies. When organising my parent’s funerals we chose nobody intervention and no embalming, just a simple linen cloth to wrap around them. Through the making of this film, I have gained a greater understanding and insight into how to treat our loved ones after they die.
I want the film to offer these insights to both an audience with no immediate experience of dealing with death and also to those who have experienced losing a loved one. We hope that ultimately Ying Ling’s sense of youth makes the message of the film is a hopeful one, that life carries on, even in the midst of death.
Describe the visual strategy behind the film? How did your approach to the film’s photography develop over its production? Was there ever a moment of significant adjustment from your original vision?
An artistic challenge was managing the representation of death and the dead so not alienate the viewer from the film. The slow introduction of this is through Ying Ling’s own experience of the job. As the film progresses we become more exposed to the workings of the job and the funeral home so that gradually though the story we become able to deal with what could be a very challenging subject.
The visuals become bolder as the viewer, like Ying Ling, becomes more used to this world. It is through Ying Ling that we will feel the reactions of others – e.g. a tight shot of Ying Ling’s face will be the frame from which to make sense of the cries of a family collecting a deceased loved one.
The visuals of the dead are visually measured maintaining a level of respect and the dignity, as well as avoiding voyeuristic or graphic scenes whilst depicting the reality of a mortician’s job.
With the film coming to Berlinale, describe how you plan to further expand its accessibility to wide audiences?
Berlin is a wonderful platform to launch the film at and being in Generation 14+ I hope will underline the coming of age story that is also at the heart of this film. Ying Ling is a teenager, very young to be out in the world on her own and the tender love story that develops between her and her colleague Lashes really reinforces this. We have many plans for the film and hope to confirm festivals, broadcast and distribution in the coming weeks. Though the film does tackle an often taboo subject, it is also a film about youth, life paths and choices – this is a reality the world over, and so I hope the film will resonate in that way as well.
Can you talk a little about the design aspects of the film’s branding…for example, choice of font, color, and the development of its one sheet. How do you view the branding strategy of the film?
I felt it was important to have the image that captures the essence of Ying Ling for the poster. We choose a simple font that was also used for the opening title. The colours also reflect the colour palette of the film.
We choose a bright yellow colour for the title as it is a colour features a lot in the film and it also represents brightness, life and youth because the film is so much about that as well.
Finally, if you could describe your film in one word, what would it be?