“Can Movies Bring Back the Dead?”: An Essay on Grief and Film

My dad died when I was ten, and I’ve been trying to find the best way back to him ever since. Cinema has always been that best way. A movie theatre is a chance to experience the emotions public life demands we repress, emotions like grief. It can be hard to do that anywhere else, in a world that does not welcome the discussion of death. But luckily, movie theatres are open spaces. I go to the movies, and I feel closer to my dad. Today, I can see his influence in all my favorite films.

I know, for instance, that it was my dad’s death that fueled my childhood obsession with space movies, like J.J Abram’s Star Trek franchise. In those movies, I was hoping to find the peace in uncertainty: If space had no limits, perhaps life did not either. I know that in recent years, I have begun learning how to try on film character’s fathers the way I try on shoes. When I saw Eighth Grade a few years ago, I spent the entire movie wondering if my father and I would have danced through my adolescence in the same way the protagonist and hers do.

My whole life, movies were the one space where I could see someone else openly experience what I was experiencing: life-altering grief. It was not the romance of West Side Story that I loved when I saw it during the year after my dad’s death. Instead, I was fixated on Maria’s emotional breakdown after losing Tony. They resembled the private panic attacks I was having about my dad. As a kid, I didn’t feel I could talk about those moments in my everyday life; it felt like something to be ashamed of. But when I saw someone else feel distraught onscreen, it made my experience seem normal and human.

Maria and Tony’s last moments in West Side Story

This is the same case with Atonement, a movie I think of like an old trusted confidant. Like the film’s protagonist, I have at times felt consumed by words I chose not to say when I had the chance: the missed thank you’s and appeals for advice. Tragedy and death made innocent mistakes from childhood into life-long regrets for me, and few people understand the intensity of that feeling. Atonement does, however. In fact, that film is how I stopped berating myself for every argument I’d ever had with my dad.

I, more and more, need spaces to unravel my feelings about my dad —  my discomfort and anxieties. I take note of every film that teaches me something about loss. There’s The Farewell, whose humor reminds me to appreciate light-hearted moments. There’s the feelings like the ones I get each time I watch Interstellar and see the protagonist’s reaction to missing his children’s life milestones — that pain that explains that my dad was also upset to lose me. There’s documentaries like Dear Zachary: A Letter to His Son About His Father, lessons that loss is more common than it feels.

The father-daughter duo of Interstellar

I am always trying to find new ways back to my father, but none has ever passed the first. Cinema remembers what we often choose to forget, the ugly realities we are scared to examine in day-to-day life. There are no ways to bring back people who have died. But perhaps that does not mean they have to be gone.  Cinema —- the gracious, empathetic, honest traits of cinema — might just be our best bet to cross the boundaries of death.

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