We are at the dawn of a new year and January is heralding all its sparkling and freshly anticipated opportunities – but what if you knew that the only thing awaiting you was your final end? Barry J Gibb is an award-winning filmmaker with a beguiling background in molecular biology and neuroscience who has deftly turned his inquisitive and accomplished mind to the world of film, and in this case, documentary. ‘The Gift’ is a meditative exploration of the phenomenal life of the vibrant artist Barbara Bird as she lives through the contemplation and acceptance of her death.
An agonising yet heartwarming introspection into the strength and resilience of one woman portrayed in an unexpectedly beautiful way.
S.S: Where did the idea come from for such a compelling piece?
B.J.G: I’m sort of obsessed with time. Initially, I wanted to make a single film all about time – its measurement (as in watches), its very nature (as in the physics of it) and its perception (the human experience of it). The grand plan was to somehow weave these 3 threads together. I started by interviewing a physicist about the fabric of time. For research I read ‘A Brief History of Time’ so I at least had a grasp of the area and asked decent questions. I then interviewed Peter Whibberley at the NPL, the National Physics Laboratory, to chat about atomic clocks and time. All this was fascinating stuff – I tend to start with areas people feel comfortable with, then I ask more probing questions. It’s interesting, for instance, to ask a physicist about their first memories!
Once it got to the idea of exploring the perception of time, I had all these thoughts about, how does a monk perceive time, or a farmer, a prisoner, a refugee..? But then I wondered, what if you knew you were going to die – how would that affect your perception of time? Ultimately, I think, rather than exploring time, I decided that it was the preciousness of the time we have that was intriguing. Of life.
So I got in touch with Living Well Dying Well (LWDW) – I’d made a short video with them about being an End-of-Life doula, and asked for a little help. I wondered if they might be comfortable reaching out to see if there were any people prepared to talk to me – people who knew their time was limited, that they were dying. After an initial project with someone whom I first met in 2017, LWDW got in touch with me about a woman in Hastings, Barbara. I was surprised by how young she was. I just don’t imagine terminal cancer patients being so young, vigorous and funny. I also loved her Californian accent.
That first interview was a challenge. Barbara cried throughout much of the hour-long chat and it was hard not to feel bad, that I was somehow dragging up unpleasant feelings and thoughts – several times I asked if she wanted to stop but she refused. I think it was cathartic. During the interview, Barbara mentioned wanting to leave her body to science at which point, my mind simply said, wow – imagine filming a single person before and after death…It actually took me more than a month to summon the courage to write to Barbara after that and ask her – and her husband, Mark – if they were cool with me filming them over an extended period of time which would also include her death and beyond. I mean, it’s not a normal ask, is it?!
We filmed over two years. I created a list of events it would be good to film and made sure Barbara kept me in the loop of anything that might be a good film opportunity. People are so guilty of thinking their life is boring, but to a filmmaker it can be gold. One morning an idea came to me as I was waking up that made far more, poetic sense, for the ending – and this is how the film now ends, with Barbara herself becoming an integral part of her collage
S.S: Are documentaries a mainstay for you and how do you feel they can be used to tell a story creatively?
B.J.G: Big Question! Yes, they’re what I live and breathe for. Primarily because I love the creative treatment of reality. Actually, this is tougher to answer than I thought! Let’s start at the beginning – I love reality – there’s nothing more pure, honest and important than the very moments in which we find ourselves. Ever since watching Albert Maysles docs (I met him in New York, which was awesome) and some of the early works by the founders of documentary, like Grierson, I’ve been entranced by the idea that every human, indeed everything that passes through time, has the potential to contain a story within it.
The creative part, for me, is the impressionistic treatment of that reality – not trying to change the reality of the story but trying to use editing as a means of enhancing and finding and playing with the emotional content and beats of the story. I suppose it’s a bit like music – there are the notes but it’s how you play them that alters the feeling of them. At heart, I’m a romantic, sympathetic heavyweight looking to tell the most emotional stories I can with what may appear to be the most normal of situations.
S.S: Do you think your background in science has an effect on the way you approach filming and if so how?
B.J.G: Absolutely. Part of doing a PhD is learning to be self-sufficient. You design your own experiments, learn new experimental techniques, interpret your results and move forward. Filming is the same. It never even occurred to me to go to film school – while still working in a lab, I got a Mac, a camera and taught myself how to film, edit and capture sound. I used to practice editing by downloading movies from archive.org and creating remixes, using editing to usurp the original purpose of a film, find the humour in it… I love collaborating on ideas and sometimes in the edit, but I work largely alone. The initial idea for a film can be like a hypothesis, the footage I capture is like the raw experimental data, the edit becomes the real experiment where you attempt to see if the hypothesis was correct or – even better – you discover something entirely new.
Today, 90% of my client work is science based – working with scientific institutions to help tell their stories. My past training helps me understand what they want, allows me to easily communicate with the scientists being interviewed and helps me edit and tell their stories in a way that’s relatively simple, clear and uncomplicated.
S.S: Interviews can be challenging at the best of times, so what sort of questions did you ask Barbara in order to gain insight into her person/character and her intimate journey?
B.J.G: I love interviewing people. I had no idea I was reasonably good at it until clients started commenting on it. Perhaps aided by the fact I work alone, when I interview someone, it’s pretty clear, this is just about them – I am interested, I am listening. I care. With Barbara, the initial interview was trying to cover a lot – her attitude to life, time, death. In a situation like that, you have to tread respectfully – you’d never start with question 1, tell me how you feel about death! The way I structure interviews is much like I’d imagine getting to know a friend – start light and gradually (as you build trust and rapport) start getting emotionally deeper. Barbara and myself touched on her childhood, her mental wellbeing, her first memories, her diagnosis, how she started to prepare for death and, of course, how all this has affected her feelings about the time of her life.
S.S: The music featured alongside this heady subject matter really melds – how did you come to create the soundtrack?
B.J.G: All the sound and music is created using Logic Pro. I’d always wanted to learn how to use that software and the combination of ‘The Gift’ and lockdowns allowed me to do an online course to learn it (very crudely) and then use it to create the sort of feelings and sound I was after. I work with music libraries all the time and I know they are brilliant. But whenever I stood at the edit, this film felt like it needed something of its own – maybe not music, as such, but more a sound that would guide the emotional landscape and help provide story beats as the viewer went through it. I saw the film again recently and I couldn’t really remember coming up with some of the musical beats and pieces but they still felt like they were working (so that was a relief!). I also noticed there’s a sort of religious, choral feel to a lot of the sound – born more of reverence for the subject matter than anything to do with religion. I guess I wanted people to feel they were watching something vital, important – a person’s life passing.
S.S: You spoke about filming over a 2 year period. Do you struggle with such a long league time?
B.J.G: With docs, I think it’s pretty easy to just keep filming and convince yourself you have a film. I didn’t want to waste the opportunity Barbara and myself were sharing – this journey we were on – so I was pretty strict with myself. A list was created of ‘things I’d like to film’, aspects of Barbara’s life and death that I felt would help. When thinking about a doc, I tend to think there are at least two aspects to the story – what the film is about, and what the film is really about. For ‘The Gift’, at a simple level, this is a chronological journey that follows a woman to her death. But for me – and hopefully a viewer – it’s about far more.
S.S: What do you want audiences to take from ‘The Gift’
B.J.G: The film is Barbara’s literal gift to the audience. A viewer may be passively watching her story but at the end, Barbara flips the script and starts to talk about you, the viewer – that your life is like a collage and that means you can change it. So, I hope that people come away from the film inspired by the honesty of Barbara’s journey and also motivated to make the most of the life they have, realising they still have agency to change it, to shape it the way they’d like it to be. I want people to watch ‘The Gift’ and come away more able to cherish every moment on Earth they have.
S.S: What is next for you?
B.J.G: This pandemic has been awful for the world. As a person who thrives on documentary, on being in the room and filming a person’s world, it’s been hard. For personal films like ‘The Gift’, getting access has been harder – most people have barely seen their friends, let alone allowed a filmmaker into their home! That said, there’s something bubbling away about grief. I realise as I write this I must sound like such a downer – what is it with this guy, films about death, films about grief?! But, having looked into the area a little, I think it’s possible to tell an emotionally powerful and uplifting story about humans and what we do with grief, how we survive it and find happiness again.