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SxSW 2016 Interview: SEVEN SONGS FOR A LONG LIFE director Amy Hardie

by Jason Whyte

"SEVEN SONGS FOR A LONG LIFE follows six patients and two staff at a Scottish hospice and explores our changing relationship with death, with great songs!

I came to Strathcarron hospice with strict instructions...hang around. Being an artist in a medical establishment you get good at hanging around. Feeling useless becomes your evolving art form. Finally the patients took pity on me. Maybe they were feeling a bit useless too. Disease can do that. Then they started singing to the camera. I loved it. Myself, I was banned from the singing circle right at nursery. But the songs that came from the patients at Strathcarron were so full of passion, dreams, anger, regret, acceptance; I felt it was their whole lives tunnelling into the camera microphone. We started making little music films together; three minutes, five minutes, interspersing the song with observational footage of their time in the hospice and at home. The requests came in thick and fast and I learnt an interesting thing, when you have been told you have a disease that is going to kill you, you don't waste time. And you want pleasure. To receive it and to give it." Director Amy Hardie on SEVEN SONGS FOR A LONG LIFE which screens at the 2016 South By Southwest Film Festival.

I am thrilled to hear a musically inclined movie is showing at SxSW and this is your first time here! Are you planning to attend your screenings?

I am so delighted to be invited to SXSW. And it's not just me who will be attending the screenings! We have one of the stars of the film, nurse Mandy Malcomson, who is flying over from the West Coast of Scotland. She is inspirational, both as a singer and a care-giver, and I am thrilled we are running a workshop entitled Singing, Dancing, Dying with her and the music coach of the film, Hilary Brooks. Hilary coaxed the extraordinary singing from each patient. They chose the songs, and often Hilary would have only 15 minutes to make sure that they had the confidence to know it was their best voice that was being filmed. Hospice care is quite different in the UK to the US, and I think people may be astonished at the early hospice intervention, and its good results; more energy, longer life, and in this film, better songs!

Sounds amazing! Tell me a bit about how you got your start in the industry and your previous work!

I started as a writer, then picked up a camera and fell in love! I come from a family of painters and I was the one who couldn't draw. A camera allows me to paint the picture, and I really enjoyed my first year at the National Film and Television School, where I took a camera out into Soho every weekend, and followed them to their homes and found out about their lives. My graduation film won the BP Expo award for student features that year, which really helped get my first television commission for BBC. I then set up as women's film unit in Holloway prison, and for a year the prisoners and I learnt together and made a lovely film about a mother inside and a daughter growing up outside. I made films with anthropologists for a few years, travelling to Asia and Africa. Back in Scotland I got a job in Edinburgh University and set up the Scottish Documentary Institute with Noe Mendelle and Sonja Henrici, to bring the best international documentaries to Scotland and train ourselves with the best!

So how did this movie come together from your perspective?

It really grew from those first songs. I made little films and showed them at the hospice. Patients loved them and we began a process where they were more and more involved in choosing songs and discussing what was important. One patient told me how amazing it had been to him to come to the hospice from a busy hospital ward. He had been ready to die, but in the hospice a young woman just took time to sit on his bed and really talk to him. She was a palliative doctor. He told me, "Time is the greatest gift anyone can give you. When you sit with someone you are giving them your time."

I spent four years filming in Strathcarron, listening, watching and taking up time from the patients and the staff. Sometimes there was a sense of urgency; if someone is in pain then each second of pain is a second too long. Sometimes time looped back on itself and we were transported by the songs back into someone's childhood, or their first love, or the moment they lost their spouse. Julie, one of the patients who had been told she had months to live, lived firmly in the moment. As the moments stretched into months, and then years, she had a rethink. She dyed her hair blonde and went back to work, fell in love, got married. Is she scared of dying? Not anymore, she is ready. How long is a good marriage? How long is a long life? As Dorene says after her successful stem cell treatment, "This treatment has given me five years, and five years is a long time."

I brought in a music facilitator for the last year of filming. It created a fantastic buzz as the patients and staff heard themselves reach new levels of power in their songs. It was Hilary Brook's first time in a hospice, and like me, she was apprehensive before she arrived. Once she had met the patients and staff, however, we embarked on a shared journey that included laughter, tears, cake and comedy. The patients grew to have absolute trust that Hilary would help them find their best voice. I love it that Nicola changed the last word of the last chorus in the film; it is a confident expression of who she is, and what is happening to her. She ends the film with an invitation to the audience to "dream a little dream for me." It makes me cry.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you, especially with a story such as this?

It is tough making a film in a hospice, because you build relationships with people, you grow to really like them and you can watch them suffer and sometimes they die. I need a strong happy home life to cope with that. I walk in the country, I ride an exuberant young horse that I have had since a foal. Every moment is totally in the present with him! And I eat really really well; I love baking and cooking and I live with a man whose meals are legendary in this corner of Scotland!

What was your biggest challenge with making this movie, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

It was hard at first to gain acceptance. Many patients were annoyed by the camera in the beginning and could not work out why I wanted to film. Some of the staff felt I was taking up space and time with no good reason. It took months to get folk to see why it might be worth making a film. Once people enjoyed the filmmaking process, I of course filmed too many people! I wanted to tell too many a story, and having worked with them for so many years on little films as filmmaker in residence, getting to a final cut for the feature was quite painful. Then the music licensing was difficult. Although they chose the songs, there were a couple of songs we just couldn't include. DREAM A LITTLE DREAM was in and out of the movie until the very last minute. I'm so glad we got the license for it in the end.

I must get techincal with you; I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie and how it was shot.

I shot a lot of the film myself with a Canon C300, and I bought it for the film, with a couple of lenses. I worked with a couple of cameramen when I wanted to do more beauty shots, or a two camera set up. But the bigger the crew, the more daunted my contributors got, so I liked to keep it small, and I think this intimacy during production translates into a very intimate and personal experience for the audience as well.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?

I am really looking forward to sharing the film to the audiences at Austin and see how this Scottish hospice film translates for an American audience. Probably the thing that excites me most though is having the chance to offer the workshop at SxSW. I noticed how audiences didn't want to leave the cinema after the film screening, and really wanted to talk and share their experiences. It's a bit of a leap, thinking about our mortality, and an even bigger leap, being able to bear to think about one's friends and relatives who may be facing their last years or months. Somehow watching the film makes that easier. I do believe that cinema is more potent as an art form than we give it credit: it's such a young art form, less than 150 years old, and this workshop is my attempt to create an "expanded cinema," that uses the energy provided by the film screening to encourage one to one discussion. I have structured the workshop very tightly, so that by the end of thirty minutes, each member of the audience will have worked out the individual values that have guided their life, and how those can provide a blueprint for how to spend their last years. The feedback so far has been outstanding and quoted as, "Perfectly pitched workshop: Transformational."

After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next?

We have a number of festivals lined up which we can't talk about, and other exciting announcements coming soon. We're also running a secondary release in the UK during Dying Matters Week from May 9th to 16th. We are really committed to our outreach, and we welcome opportunities for US outreach as well.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business as a piece of advice?

If you want to make a documentary, start by filming a story or people that are accessible to you nearby. Try a short three minute piece and put it to festivals or online. Filmmaking is hard and you don't need to add any additional obstacles to making your film, such as paying to travel somewhere exotic at great expense. Make a really nice short film locally, and see where it takes you.

And finally, what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

I love LES GLANEURS AND LA GLANEUSE by Agnes Varda. It was an early filmmaking use of small hand held digital cameras, and she turned the camera on herself to explore her life, whilst keeping a hugely cinematic visual scope; I loved the last shot of Millet's huge painting held up on the roof of the Pompidou Centre, wind gently rippling the canvas.

Be sure to follow the progress of SEVEN SONGS FOR A LONG LIFE at

We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview as part of our coverage of SxSW 2016. To see the entire series click on the Live Report sidebar on your right. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2016 SXSW in Austin, Texas taking place March 11-19. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

link directly to this feature at
originally posted: 03/10/16 08:49:24
last updated: 03/10/16 08:53:29
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