Watching Others Die: Dying at Grace (2003), Spectatorship and the Ethics of Being Moved
Film might be ‘a technology that could generate empathy,’ (Landsberg, 2004, 150) but how does it use it? Is empathy enough, both as a term and as an experience, to describe the spectator’s response to others’ suffering or to bridge the fraught, and constantly reinforced, distance separating the healthy and the frail? And what would or should this bridge afford? Turning to the moving image of non-simulated dying, to our regarding the suffering of others, this paper asks how film invites the spectator to share in the experience. What this invitation (or demand) and this sharing (or respons-ibility) mean or could mean frames the necessarily ethical questions surrounding our involvement in others’ deaths.
Where mainstream fiction film distorts and displaces dying to confirm the values, salve the conscience, and death-fear, of the spectator, the non-fiction film can do something else. In this paper I will discuss Dying at Grace, the 2003 ‘actuality drama’ by Allan King, ‘cinéma vérité's forgotten man’ (Lim, 2010). An unflinching and metaphor-free record of five people’s final days, the film does more than avow and locate death, it requires the spectator to face head-on and up to dying. This (Levinasian) confrontation will prove neither frontal nor narcissistic/solipsistic but a rich, even unrivalled, reflection on what is at stake, and what is possible, in our encounter with dying on screen.