Carol Salter's Almost Heaven (2017) is playing October 9 - November 8, 2017 on MUBI in the United Kingdom.
When making my films I start off with an emotion or a feeling, which transforms into an idea that mirrors the initial feeling. I was dealing with my own fear of death and coming to terms with the inevitable loss of my aging parents.
The starting point was a short newspaper article about the work of young morticians in China, who perform special spa treatments on the deceased. These young people gave respect to the deceased by cleansing and washing away their ills and pains. I was intrigued as to how such young people, at the beginning of their life, could cope with working in such a place and so closely to death.
I met with a number of young morticians while filming, but there was something about Ying Ling that drew me to her and I chose to follow her journey. She was innocent, quirky and as fearful of being a part of this environment as I was. What is more, both Ying Ling and myself had never seen a dead body before.
As I filmed her, I felt we were both venturing out on a journey toward facing our mutual fears around death. Ying Ling was finding her own sense of independence in the adult world, and I felt better able to deal with the necessary ‘letting go’ of my parents’ passing. In a way, Almost Heaven is a film defined by two journeys and the bond that emerges from them—both of us were going through our own rites to passage.
I’m drawn to working in a country where I don’t speak or understand the spoken language. I don’t speak Mandarin and do not ask my translator to translate while I am shooting. This allows my instinctive feeling to drive what might be meaningful within a scene. Being a self-shooter and using very little equipment has enabled me to be more reactive to the moments that are unfolding in front of me, capturing them with greater immediacy. This also helps me, I think, to establish greater intimacy with the people I film, enabling me to pick out small details that speak of the tenderness or brutality of a moment. I am always searching for the energy in any given scene, a voice been raised, a whisper, someone’s look.
I’m interested in a simplicity of storytelling. Perhaps due to my background as an editor, I find the subtraction of storytelling to be as important as what you put in. Almost Heaven is a film that is shaped by a young woman’s sense of alienation and how she gradually learns to overcome this. Perhaps this approximates the empathy I myself have towards the people I film. I care about them and there is a trust in that empathy that (hopefully) translates to screen.