We know we are all on a one way journey to the grave, but it’s not something most of us care to dwell on. Not so for filmmaker Sue Bourne, who has spent the last year traveling around the UK making a film about people who have been given a terminal diagnosis. A Time to Live manages an extraordinary feat: it’s a life affirming film about dying. But Bourne would be the first to argue that it’s not about death, but, as the title indicates, about living: in story after story, we are introduced to people who have heard the most unbearable of news, and are now navigating a new normal.
Bourne and editor Sam Santana (both have featured in Docs on Screens; this is their first film together) did a Q&A with journalist Stephen Armstrong following a London BAFTA preview screening last week. In introducing the film, BBC Two Controller Patrick Holland said that Bourne is “forensic and unrelenting when she mines the emotion of a very specific experience to reveal wider, universal truths.”
When Bourne approached Holland to say that she wanted to make a film about people make the most of their limited time left, he was quickly on board: “It was one of the easiest commissioning decisions I’ve ever had to make.”
A Time to Live tells the story of twelve people of various ages, and their responses to being told they don’t have long to live. Bourne deliberately sought a selection of people who have acted out in surprising ways, including Annabel (pictured below), a woman whose first act upon receiving her prognosis was to leave her husband.
“I mean what was interesting about Annabel’s story is that it was quite radical,” said Bourne. “I think she had been quite a timid person…what cancer did was it emboldened her. And she thought ‘Bloody hell, if I’ve only got a short time left, I really should do all those things I’ve been thinking about’.”
To make the film, Bourne kept to a small nimble team, as she recounted to the Bafta audience: “Natalie (Walter) joined in and the two of us did all the research to find the people. I don’t like filming until I knew exactly what is going to go in the film. Natalie not only shot it but also oversaw the whole sound; it was remarkable. And then we set off on this van around the country to film all twelve people. And we had to be flexible because these were really ill people…We just moved around the country more or less for three months. We all had flu injections and boxes of supplements because we couldn’t go into their house and be any risk to them at all.”
Shooting completed, Bourne and Santana holed up in Bourne’s house for a ten week edit. It was a new experience for Santana, used to cutting rigged and other narrative driven films: “For me it was the first time cutting a film without what you call evolving narrative or process or intercutting, where you start one character’s storyline and then intercut to another. We didn’t do it…So we kind of felt that we needed to make subtle transitions.”
On the whole the transitions did not employ Bourne’s voiceover, often a prominent feature: “Usually in my films there is quite a lot of commentary. Because I’m kind of the narrative thread, weaving through it. But it became quite apparent early on that I didn’t need to say anything. This was their story.”
As a one woman show at Wellpark Productions, Bourne continues to be the main interface with her contributors, and the edit was frequently interrupted. “Sometimes we’d get news that was not particularly good,” said Santana. “People who we were just about to cut their story or had just completed their story. And we just had to work really hard and keep plowing on. That would be tough.” Bourne added: “And then actually you’re motivated, and you go, okay we really need to tell this person’s story.”
The film proceeds from one story to the next, without interweaving. Remarkably, there are no hospitals or footage of anything medical. The interviews are solely with the twelve contributors – supportive spouses and family are seen but barely heard. At the end, there is no revealing of who has died since filming ended – Bourne wanted their stories to be about their lives rather than their deaths.
The film’s power is in its universality. As Holland noted in his Bafta intro: “We are all of course life limited. What Sue’s film does is make all of us reflect on our own choices. On what a good life means. And what you can do to make a difference to ourselves and others. It’s a profound and challenging film.”
A Time to Live airs on BBC Two on Wednesday, 17 May, 9pm. Extended contributor interviews, made in conjunction with the Open University, will be available via the website after broadcast.