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Aged | Arts | Education | Environment | Health & Wellbeing
Mortal
Synopsis
Speaking only in magnificent images, sounds, and music, Mortal is an unflinching cinematic travelogue that challenges our complex relationship with mortality by immersing us in the taboo, macabre, and yet undeniably beautiful world of human death rituals.

In the tradition of nonverbal films like Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi, Mortal explores how humans around the world ceremonialize mortality. Western society has constructed a culture of death denial that discreetly glosses over the more uncomfortable aspects of our mortality. Most of us are living with an unexpressed fear of death, and that fear affects the overall quality of our lives and our behaviour. To live deeply humans need exposure to death over time and in a rational way. Mortal seeks to address this gap in our understanding. 

The film opens with an explosive celebration of death, a carnival of colourful and theatrical rituals from around the world. Here, death is not hidden from the living, and the audience can enjoy these typically taboo scenes from a safe distance. 

We then follow the journeys of five people in the final chapter of their lives: a terminally ill Californian who chooses to end their life through assisted dying methods; the highly ritualised death of a Suri tribeswoman in remote Ethiopia; the peaceful, yet macabre sky burial of a Tibetan Buddhist living in Luang Gar; an Australian patient and their doctors fighting mortality from a Western hospital bed; and an Indian’s final pilgrimage to Varanasi in hope of breaking the cycle of birth and death forever. Their journeys are intimately documented from individual death preparations, to the moment of their passing, to the funeral rites held by family and friends. 

The final act of Mortal serves as a balancing epilogue to the film’s opener. Humanity’s timeless pursuit of immortality is explored through old and new death monuments and the perpetual cycle of decay and renewal on earth and in the universe.

For thousands of years, belief in an afterlife gave a relatively satisfying answer to the death question. But without belief, how do we wrap our heads around death? Whilst Mortal offers no answers to the riddle of our mortality, it tempts the audience to stare into the void we’ve spent most of our lives sidestepping. For centuries, the greatest minds in history have encouraged us to study the art of dying in order to live fully, and perhaps this paradox holds the key to our understanding.   

Philanthropy

How does the project meet the aims of a philanthropic foundation?

If you look at the problems of the world—we can’t get along with each other, we’re destroying the environment, there’s rampant economic instability by virtue of mindless consumption—these are all manifestations of death denial running amok. 

According to recent research done on socioemotional selectivity theory, once our days truly are numbered, our priorities shift: we’re more forgiving, we want to care more for others, and spend less time enhancing ourselves. Studies have also shown that the simple act of reflecting upon mortality can lead people to help others, donate to charity, and want to invest in caring relationships. 

Put simply, awareness of our impending death makes us kinder, more globally minded individuals who are more concerned with the wellbeing of our fellow humans and the world around us.

Aims & Objectives

What outcomes do you hope to achieve by making this film and how will you measure its impact?

Mortal isn’t a shock documentary – that would be counterproductive. It’s an experiential film that urges the audience to explore and question their relationship with death instead of fearing it. Mortal is our contribution to the global Death Positive movement. 

This film has the potential to reach a wide audience and spark death dialogues across social and cultural boundaries. Western culture is slowly emerging from the grips of death denial. In the US, the Death Positive movement is gaining momentum, in the UK there is a chain of death cafés where people go to discuss mortality over cups of tea, and death midwives (once considered esoteric and alternative) are now commonplace in hospital palliative care wards. 

As Ernest Becker pointed out in his Pulitzer Prize winning book "The Denial of Death", knowing and practicing death during our lifetime is the key to truly living.

Strategy

What is your education and outreach strategy?

FILM FESTIVALS 

This feature documentary would have a theatrical release in cinemas, as well as screenings at film festivals both locally and internationally. 

BROADCAST 

This type of film would appeal to thematic strands around the topics of mortality, travel, cultural identity, religion and mythology, and history. Therefore, we see this project finding a place in the programming of Australian broadcasters SBS and Foxtel History.Obvious international networks would be Smithsonian Channel culture strand, PBS POV strand, HBO Docs, ZDF/ARTE thematic strands, CBC Doc Nation, NHK World Documentary, YLE Channel-1 Feature Documentary, CNN Films Presents, BBC Storyville. 

ONLINE 

This feature documentary would appeal to US SVOD platform Curiosity Stream and Quail Entertainment will be pitching directly to them with the view of getting it commissioned. The film would be available in all digital catch-up platforms linked to all of the broadcasters involved. Other dedicated online platforms where the project would be pitched include Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and Sundance Selects. 

GALLERY SCREENINGS 

Many international and Australian art galleries have dedicated screening rooms for cinema. Mortal has a linear narrative thread, but the film can also be appreciated in shorter sessions like video art. The audience may choose to stay for a few minutes or for the entire 80 minute experience. 

COMMUNITY SCREENINGS 

Working closely with the Death Positive movement to ensure maximum impact, screenings would be held by counsellors in community centres, at aged care facilities and hospices, and at universities and high schools.

Director
Penny Vozniak
Producer
Greg Quail
Total budget
$2,150,000
Length
80 Minutes
Stage
Development