How do you live with the unlivable?
My son Michael died on August 9, 1986. His death was sudden and incomprehensible. He was nine years old. His younger brother Danny was seven. I was a thirty-six year old photographer, and for two years after Michael’s death I could only photograph trash–the abandoned remnants of past lives.
I have now been a documentary filmmaker for the past twenty years. My second film, The Band, was set during Danny’s junior year in high school in 1996. As told through my eyes, it was both the story of his life and world centered around his high school marching band, and of our relationship nine years after Michael’s death.
Twelve years later, The Band was the starting point for Sweet Old World, my first fiction film. I began writing the screenplay fifteen years ago, and with a Guggenheim Fellowship went into production in the Spring of 2010. After a short but gratifying festival run, I put the film on a shelf, not yet ready to bring it to the world.
The reality is, it took me that long to find the story I wanted to tell, and to know why I wanted to tell it. The emotional landmine that is life after the death of a child is so complex, so unexpected, and so frightening that it is rarely, I believe, depicted well in films. There are exceptions–The Accidental Tourist and Moonlight Mile come to mind, and one that I have gone back to repeatedly is the The Son by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne–a film that tells the startling story of a father who discovers that the new student in his carpentry class is the recently paroled killer of his son.
To find my story, I went back to a pivotal day I will never forget, a little over a year after Michael died. One evening, home from work, I realized that for the first time since his death I had gone an entire day without thinking or crying about Michael. This was not a moment of joy–far from it. I reacted with horror at the sudden realization that there would be a time when I will go days, weeks, months without feeling the knife edge of his death, when my grief will morph into something else.
It was as if Michael had died once again. Losing my grief was tantamount to abandoning him, handing him over to the myth of “closure” and the horrendous mantra, “Life goes on.” It was accepting life without Michael, an unacceptable reality.
This is a moment everyone who has lost a child goes through. It’s a second death, a time of great despair. And it is the juncture when you have to make a choice, to decide to accept what will never be acceptable and find a way to live with it. The choice is terrible, but unavoidable.
I decided to tell the story of a man, Brian Hinkle, who couldn’t make that choice. Eight years after his son’s death he has wrapped himself in the shroud of his grief and turned away from his life. He is, in Joan Didion’s words, pathologically grieving. Frozen. Dead, yet still here.
But there’s one “problem”–Brian has another son, Ethan. Just seven when his brother died, Ethan’s own pain and grief have never been acknowledged by his father. Their relationship, mirroring Brian’s life, is cold and empty.
I wanted to explore what would happen to father and son if something, or some one, made it impossible to continue living that way. Would they find a new connection, a new relationship? Or had the rut of the past eight years grown too deep, too ossified? That’s the story of Sweet Old World. It’s a film about finding the possibility for healing in unexpected, surprising places–and being open to those blue skies.
“I found Sweet Old World especially compelling in its depiction of how the death of a child resonates in unexpected ways through a family and over the years. This film could only have been made by someone who has endured the endless process of bereavement. The note of reconciliation on which it ended was the kind of resolution that we all seek. I was really moved by it.”
Dr. Gordon Livingston, author of Only Spring–On Mourning the Death of My Son
“Sweet Old World is a unique and welcome film. Drawing from his own life’s tragedy, David Zeiger has created a story that is in turns heartbreaking and heart healing. He takes viewers deep inside the all-too-often hidden world of families living through the years with the death of a child. An insightful journey of two souls searching for peace. I highly recommend Sweet Old World to those who have taken that unwanted journey, the people who support them, and anyone looking for a unique, satisfying film.”
Gloria Horsley, Open To Hope Foundation