by Paula Spahn
July 5, 2011
The New Old Age
Coming soon to a public television station near you: “Consider the Conversation: A Documentary on a Taboo Subject.”
Two friends and amateur filmmakers in rural southern Wisconsin put together this hourlong look at the way Americans think about, or try not to think about, what we’ve euphemistically come to call end-of-life questions.
Michael Bernhagen became a hospice worker after his mother died at age 81 of advanced vascular dementia without any health care professional ever mentioning the word “hospice” to his family. He conducted the film’s 40-odd interviews with chaplains and ministers, doctors, nurses, authors, researchers, patients and passers-by on New York City streets. Terry Kaldhusdal, a fourth-grade teacher whose brother died of pancreatic cancer at 53, was the guy behind the camera.
“Without our personal losses, this project probably wouldn’t have happened,” Mr. Bernhagen told me in an interview.
They spent a solid unpaid year — nights, weekends, holidays — shooting on a shoestring budget of $43,000. About 60 people made small contributions because they believed in the project or saw it as a way to memorialize loved ones; a handful of larger donors wrote checks for a few thousand dollars.
Accordingly, the film relies frequently on stock photos (soaring hawks, flickering candles) and soaring soprano voices. “We didn’t want to scare people. We wanted to inspire them to think, to talk and to act,” Mr. Bernhagen said. But while it may not be high art, “Consider the Conversation” provides moving narratives and important perspectives.
And its two producers, who initially had no idea how to place their work on public television but knew they wanted it to be viewable at no cost, can chalk up some successes. Their labor of love aired on West Virginia public television stations on July 2; it will run on New Hampshire Public Television on July 7 and 8. By August, it will have been shown on public television stations in central Michigan, Colorado, Indiana and New Mexico, and in Chicago and San Francisco.
For an updated screening schedule and more information, go to the filmmakers’ Web site, ConsidertheConversation.org.