Written and directed by Helen Whitney, Into The Night: Portraits of Life and Death is a superlative documentary film about the existential side of things—death, that is.
The film is divided into two parts. Part One features people’s thoughts and feelings about dying. Part Two begins with a small section called ‘Longevity Science’ about ongoing attempts to stave off death—and then continues with interviews with people about life and death.
Sharon Stone narrates the film speaking Whitney’s well-composed thoughts about life and death.
Part One: Nine men and women search for narratives of comfort in the face of death. Their stories are described below in the order of their appearance in the film.
Gabriel Byrne, renowned actor of stage and screen, who opens the film with the famous Dylan Thomas poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” This poem poses the central questions of both films that each person will answer differently: How will we go into the night? What is the narrative that will sustain us – or not?
Adam Frank, the astrophysicist and NPR commentator, who finds comfort in the stars after the death of his brother.
Caitlin Doughty, the young mortician and bestselling author with a huge online following, who worked in a crematorium to face her fears of death and is now a spokesperson for the alternative burial and Death Salon movement.
Phyllis Tickle, the religious historian whose near-death experience shaped her life and her fearless attitude towards her impending death.
Max More, the cryonicist and futurist who places his hopes in advanced technology as a way to defeat death.
Maajid Nawaz, a former radical Islamist from the UK, who believed that martyrdom guaranteed an afterlife in paradise until he began doubting the rigidity of his dogma, and has since become an international authority on anti-extremists.
Rev. Vernal Harris, the Baptist minister who, along with his wife Narseary, loses his faith after the death of his sons and struggles to find it again.
Jim Crace, the award-winning British novelist and dedicated environmentalist, who locates his narrative of comfort in the natural world.
Jeffrey Piehler, the Mayo Clinic surgeon who, at the end of his twelve-year battle with prostate cancer, discovers love and friendship, not legacy and accomplishment, is what sustains him in his final days.
Part Two: Presents candid, intimate portraits of men and women who are grappling with the same questions as those in Part 1. But Part 2 is more than a continuation; it explores wholly new territory featuring different lives and perspectives. Their stories are described below in the order of their appearance.
Science: In this section, scientists and scientist wannabes probe how rapidly advancing discoveries in the fields of aging and longevity might be changing our narratives about death. Their voices range from mainstream scientists such as Judith Campisi and Gordon Lithgow, who are focused solely on the connection between aging and chronic disease. Their mission is to increase the healthy years of life.
Mike West, is an outlier and visionary scientist specializing in aging research and regenerative medicine, pushing back against our acceptance of our natural limits. Aubrey De Grey, a British ‘transhumanist’ tackling aging as a challenge of medical engineering who believes humans can be redesigned to live indefinitely. Ray Kurzweil, futurist and author of The Singularity Is Near, posits a near future nanotechnology which helps us exceed the limits of the human mind and body. For both De Grey and Kurzweil, death is the enemy.
Sam Keen, a prolific author, and former editor of Psychology Today, is a life-long seeker who broke away from the fundamentalist certainties of his childhood. He spent much of his life searching for the story that could rescue him from death. He was present at the birth of Esalen Institute, traveled through the wilder shores of the New Age, explored Freudianism, Buddhism, even the art of trapeze, and is now living peacefully in Northern California writing his final book, My Ship of Death.
Tieraona Low Dog, M.D., a physician and alternative medicine practitioner who struggles with her stage-four cancer diagnosis, its impact on her family, and her own spiritual beliefs. In midst of her illness she embarks on another vision quest, drawing on the resilience of her Native American ancestors, to achieve some measure of equanimity.
James Kugel is formerly the Director of the Department of Ancient Texts at Harvard University, and an Orthodox Jew schooled in ancient Hebrew wisdom. He is nonetheless forced by his cancer diagnosis to reconsider their meaning. This tests–and finally deepens–his own relationship to God.
Joel Meyerowitz and Maggie Barrett, a successful photographer and novelist couple, are shocked by the sudden death of their closest friends. They abandon their lives of ambition and distraction in New York City, and come to realize that love, not art, will be their legacy.
The Town of Nucla: a small, dying town in Colorado whose aging citizens come to depend on the selfless wisdom of their faithful pharmacist, Don Colcord, who never takes a vacation, yet yearns for adventures in far-off places. Through his devotion he witnesses the final wishes of countless dying patients, and comes to appreciate the despair of the unlived life and the power of a fully lived one.
Koshin Paley Olsen and Robert Chodo Campbell, two American Buddhist monks who emerged from the AIDS crisis to form their renowned chaplaincy training program in New York—The Zen Center for Contemplative Care. Their mission is to be with people as they die, in their own unique way.
The two-part film features original music by Edward Bilous and Greg Kalember
Additional Music by Adam Neiman, Christopher Rife, and Robert White
Executive Music Producer: Michelle DiBbucci
Into the Night is published by Bull Frog Films:
This film is dedicated to the life and work of Ted Winterburn.
(Portrait of Caitlin Doughty, a licensed American mortician, author, and blogger courtesy of ‘Into The Night’)