Most everyone recalls where they were when the Twin Towers fell on 9/11. Here in Dallas, a group of us were gathered around the television at my loft and watched in stunned silence as they came crashing down; it didn’t seem real until the paper and dust happened. We, as a viewing audience, have become so desensitized to films and television programming that show explosions, collapsing buildings, and the like that when the Towers fell, it didn’t seem real. The two elements that impacted us the most were the massive amounts of paper flying through the air and the shocked expressions on bystanders who were all concrete grey due to being covered in dust and debris.
Within the past few days, two stories coming out of Europe have again brought collective attention to a subject matter that many of us are again desensitized to: Death.
The first story is on the film exploring the death of Princess Diana, Unlawful Killing, which will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. The 90-minute documentary by British actor / director Keith Allen includes a black and white close-up image of a dying Princess Diana shortly after the 1997 car accident in a Paris underpass that killed her.
While Diana was, admittedly, a public figure, she was a person; a mother whose two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry still grieve and mourn for her untimely death. While her sons have not issued a public statement, Royal sources have been quoted as saying the pair are “sickened” by this freshest batch of unwanted publicity into their mother’s death.
“They rather hope people would treat this with the contempt it deserves,” the source said.
It’s been reported that former Harrod’s owner, Mohammed al Fayed — whose son Dodi also died in the accident — financially backed the film. A spokesman said, however, that Fayed had not been aware the photograph would be shown.
“He is appalled by that and will be taking all necessary steps to make sure it is not in the film,” the spokesman said.
The film will premiere at the famous film festival this week because British lawyers insisted on 87 cuts to the film, according to filmmaker Allen. It will be shown, he said, in the US and around the world, but will not be screened in the UK.
Does the fact that Diana was in the public sector override any sense of decorum and the wishes of her family to keep a veil of decency over her death? Sometimes, great filmmaking is not in what is shown, but in what is alluded to.
In the second situation, the BBC1 is broadcasting Inside The Human Body which shows the final dying moments of an 84-year-old grandfather, Gerald, who succumbed to lung and liver cancer; the man gave his consent for filming his death.
While the show takes a very matter-of-fact approach to the death, it has raised a major controversy on whether the BBC had gone too far in showing the scenes with critics stating it was an attempt to boost ratings.
Dr. Peter Saunders, campaign director of Care Not Killing, said,
‘Some aspects of life are so personal and private that even if individuals give their consent to be broadcast, we are wiser to keep them private. I think we can deal sensitively and factually around conveying what happens around a death in order to alleviate the anxiety we have around the dying process without crossing this Rubicon.’
However a BBC spokesman defended the program saying,
“Death is an important part of the human experience, and showing Gerald’s death is integral to understanding what happens to the body when it is no longer able to function properly. The BBC does not shy away from difficult subjects like this, but presents them in a sensitive and appropriate manner.”
The producers of Inside The Human Body stated,
“It is important that life-threatening illness and death is discussed and understood more in our society.”
By all accounts the production team has presented the subject matter in a professional manner; however, the sheer fact that the viewing audience is literally watching a man’s death strikes a disturbing note for many. It is a subject that is well entrenched on the philosophical slippery slope because once death’s are shown on prime-time, at what point will it stop or will it continue on to become an alternative viewing matter to say, Celebrity Apprentice?
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