Reflections on ‘Lost Property’ and ‘Nothing Echoes Here’

Dr Lesel Dawson and Dr Jimmy Hay presented their films to an audience of peers, academics, practitioners of film, and enthusiasts of cinema. The films were the product of a series of practice-as-research Brigstow funded projects that sought to explore if it is possible to convey the lived experience of grief, loss, and bereavement in a short film, by using the tools of filmmaking such as camera movement, shot length, focus, and editing. Their aim was to form an empathetic realization of embodied grief in fiction film. The team worked together to represent the lived experience of grief through the collation of a wide range of experiences. These films explored the extent to which narrative, sound, and cinematic techniques that foreground sensory experience could capture the raw experience of grief. The two films were Lost Property and Nothing Echoes Here. I entered the room, the researchers and the projects were briefly introduced by the academic lead for the Centre for Health Humanities and Science, then the lights were turned down and the first film, Lost Property began.

The film opened with the reverberation of sound throughout the room and the screen black. A cacophony of splitting wood, the rhythmic hammer of an axe head, and the coarse sound of sanding overlayed each other in an overwhelming discordance of noise that felt laden with emotion. Later, Lesel and Jimmy would discuss the manner in which people use labour to process grief, and that concept was palpable from the opening seconds of Lost Property. Images began to fill the screen, pairing up with the noises already heard, flitting from movement to movement, the cacophony taking its visual form. Until it slowed, faded, and was replaced by the rhythmic, methodical, almost gentle chopping of wood.

The film Lost Property is an exploration of some of the darker, uglier, and less represented forms of grief; what Lesel would later refer to as “disenfranchised grief”, that which is hidden away or not acknowledged. The film explores the dynamic of two women bereaving the loss of a husband and ex-husband. The film casts an exposing lens of the process of grief when it is mixed with hatred, anger, and jealousy. The first person we are presented with, Claire, who is the first wife of the deceased, is wrestling with the conflict between the grief she feels and the resentment she feels for the lost. This disenfranchised form of grief climaxed in a vehement outburst at the funeral, an accusation and attack against the second wife, Katie. This moment is presented throughout the film as a recurrent abstract flashback with an overlapping of voice and image that mimics the chaotic barrage of shots during the opening scene.

The grief is negotiated through the influence of the children, a recurrent motif across both films. Claire’s daughter suggests a gift of the father’s childhood toys to Katie’s daughter. The giving of this gift becomes a moment of discussion and strained-for closure between the two mothers. In this interaction, the film does not spare the audience the pain, discomfort, and anxiety felt by the women. Claire finally breaks through the uncomfortable civility with “I’m sorry about the funeral” a moment Katie instantly rejects with “Let’s not”. This develops into an impassioned argument of life, jealousy, and grief; displaying the manner in which our experience and our bereavement are never in our control as Katie states all she remembers of the funeral is the “smell of tuna sandwiches and you screaming in my face”.

Jimmy and Lesel discussed that a driving research question of this project was the attempt to present the process of grief in film in a way that does not simply utilize it as a narrative device, or a neat emotional shorthand to develop some plot. They believed this require a presentation of grief that challenges the notion of linearity in experience, and a presentation of grief-for-griefs-sake rather than grief to propel a larger narrative. They also believed it required a presentation of grief without the glorification and valorization that normally accompanies cinematic bereavement. Lost Property achieved this brilliantly.

The film enacted a form of narrative closure, with each woman processing their grief through a type of labour; Claire dismantling and removing the father’s former shed and Katie renovating and repairing the houseboat the couple used to live on together. Yet, in tandem with this potential closure, the film also presented the potential ugliness of bereavement from which there is little response or meaning to be attained. In Lost Property the viewer could witness that particular selfishness of grief, a product of a form of blinkering interiority in which nothing exists but your experience of anguish.

Lost Property was followed by the second film Nothing Echoes Here.

The film began with still shots of isolated objects cast in a cold blue light. A painting on the wall, a pair of slippers, an alarm clock, an empty bed. These images are suddenly replaced by the flickering flames of a campfire and a mother speaking to her children as they drift off to sleep, swaddled inside a tent. Morning breaks, and slowly develops with quiet shots of glorious sunlight falling through the vibrant green of the woods. There is a sense of disarming peace.

Nothing Echoes Here is a film about the locality of grief and the way in which memories are stored in spaces and objects. It examines the potential of space to cultivate grief but also the potential of space to offer one places of respite and freedom from memory and experience. Jimmy would explain after the film the central role of the non-familiar space, the wooded forest in which no echoes of the former life and the lost father can reverberate. The film contrasted the vibrant powerful green of the non-familiar exterior with the cold blue of the interior domestic space and site of grief. However, the relationship between these spaces was complicated, as was the third dynamic of the intense interior space of the grieving mind, represented by the unrelenting stare of the camera that barely left the face of the grieving mother throughout the film.

The film is set in the immediate aftermath of death and bereavement. It is set before any return to normative structures and before the rhythm of daily life has reasserted itself. The mother, unable to surround herself with the space and objects inextricably tied to her lost husband, has taken her children out of the house to live in a tent in the woods for a short while. The film presents a person’s desire for non-familiar places in the sudden experience of grief. However, the dichotomy of ‘safe non-familiar’ and ‘unsafe familiar’ is disturbed when the campsite is found by a group of school children who mindlessly destroy the site, throwing the family’s food onto the floor and dirtying or destroying the children’s toys. The family return home for the night, with a conflicting need for safety from the unsafe familiar place. The mother sleeps sat upright in the living room, still unable to enter the epicentre of her grief, the loci of objects and spaces that contain the connection to her former life, her former partner; until she is awakened, in the cold blue light, by the sudden ringing of the alarm clock. An alarm clock that must have rung in that room each day since the death, a siren calling to a lost shared presence that the object once conditioned. As she enters the room the viewer is reintroduced to those isolated objects from the opening scenes, now recontextualized. The alarm clock, the abstract painting of two lovers in bed, an article of clothing draped over a chair, a piece of jewellery abandoned on the nightstand, an unmade bed with the impressions of absent bodies in the sheets and absent heads in the pillows. It is a space locked in the locus of a moment, a place of stasis the griever cannot yet return to motion.

The film ends with the family returning to find a new camp, a new safe and unfamiliar space for them to inhabit until they have reached a point in which they can return. There is no great sense of closure, the family walk off in a random direction for a random distance measured in random choice time and the viewer knows their grieving process will continue, but little is known about how it will continue, for how long it will continue, or what resolutions, impasses, and developments will occur. The filmmakers spoke of their desire to move away from a linear structure of grief, one in which it is a process that is begun and worked through towards an end, and rather their desire to present the reality of grief as an event that forces individuals to devise a completely new structure of life. The conclusion of Nothing Echoes Here embodies this rejection of complete closure.

Similarly to Lost Property, sound played a crucial role in the film. The part of Nothing Echoes Here that affected me the most involved a series of shots leading to a building of sound into a crescendo reflecting the rupture and release of pent up pain. After the mother drops her children off at school she takes some washing to the launderette, the naturalistic sound of the film is muted and in its place begins a soft melodic male humming as she walks through spaces that seem significant, familiar. Passing the boardwalk of a beach, through green fields, and to a site of gentle resting boats, the male humming continues until it is joined in dialogue by a female singing voice, which is then accompanied by the subtle and infrequent notes on an instrument. The music stops and starts with the gaps creating a sense of absence, a sense of space, until it is suddenly broken by the return to the spinning of the laundry drum beating and building in pace and intensity. The shot focuses on the mother’s face and the viewer witnesses this beating turn into an incessant and furious whirr until she is brought to breaking point and attempts to drown out the sound of absence by putting on a pair of headphones. Once again, all is muted and this time replaced by the song ‘The Space’ by Matt Harding and, with the film drawing on the filmmaker’s personal experience of feelings of uncontrollability and intense grief triggered by music, the actor weeps. An audience member would later remark that she found “her weeping to be quite haunting in its ferocity”.

After the films, Lesel and Jimmy explained the research focuses behind this project, their individual approaches, and how these shaped and structured the experience of filming. They also discussed the unpredictable aspects, the ways in which all the cast and crew involved brought their own memories and experiences of grief to the project, and the impact the creation of these films has had on both of them. Lesel sought to explore how the process of recapturing and recontextualizing personal memories and emotions affects those memories and emotions. Jimmy wanted to redress the failure of traditional film to properly capture and respond to grief. I believe that both researchers found a little of what they were looking for and a lot of what they were not expecting. Both films were an impactful response to grief that affected the audience, myself included.

Personally, I keep returning to a line in Nothing Echoes Here that occurred when one of the children expresses their desire to stay in the house rather than return to the unfamiliar space of the woods. The mother comforts them by saying they need to do this just for a short while longer and that “it’s not forever”. What may have been to some an innocuous or quite literal statement for me was recontextualized into a profound utterance. When faced with the sheer permanence of death and the fleeting nature of human life, maybe some small comfort can be drawn from that constant ever-present sense that it is not forever.