Possibly the cheekiest and most life-affirming documentary on the concept of death and dying since Errol Morris’ “Gates of Heaven,” “Tender” is a valentine to the can-do spirit of Australians in general and local governments, known as councils, in particular. Artist and filmmaker Lynette Wallworth’s nonfiction debut is a compassionate and often gently funny tale of one such council determined to go into the not-for-profit funeral business, only to be challenged by the terminal cancer diagnosis of one of its own. Recent winner of the TV documentary prize at the Australian Academy of Cinema, Television Arts awards, the film is being distributed Stateside by Documentary Educational Resources and will make a fine addition to any cabler’s library.
“We won’t be keeping bodies at the community center,” someone explains helpfully during an informational meeting of the council in Port Kembla, the seaside industrial town in the Illawarra region of New South Wales. A genial and obviously close-knit, mostly female board that tends to conduct business over tea and pastries, they’re concerned with the high cost and impersonal nature of traditional funeral homes, and just honestly want to help.
To this end, they organize the Community Funerals Steering Committee and begin their research. Tempered by irreverent one-liners and palpable community spirit, the council also explores the more philosophical issues of the funeral and burial process, such as discussing death in advance and the benefits of keeping the body at home to grieve properly. They’re watched over by Bailey the dog, whose owner, Andrew, is part of a volunteer men’s group at the center. In the midst of this, they discover their beloved volunteer caretake, Nigel Slater, is dying of cancer. This naturally impacts the process, with project spark plug and manager Jenny Briscoe-Hough (a childhood friend of Wallworth’s) struggling to talk with Slater about his impending death and wishes.
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There are no interviews with officials in the undertaking industry, because that’s not really what “Tender” is about. Wallworth has primarily been known until now as an artist whose immersive installations harness cutting-edge interactive technologies, and some of the themes she’s pursued involve mortality, the connection between people and the natural world, grief and loss. The film is a logical extension of those concerns, made all the more poignant when Slater’s cancer was diagnosed a fortnight before the 10-week shoot that yielded some 80 hours of footage. In the end, “Tender” is as much about a hands-on, caring Australian community as it is about end-of-life issues, with Wallworth’s keen eye and respectful approach making for an emotional journey.
Tech credits are fine, with Simon Morris’ digital camera dwelling pensively on personal details of these dedicated, caring people. Music completists should note the original score from rocker Nick Cave and his regular collaborator Warren Ellis. As an inspiring coda not presented in the film, as of December 2014, the nonprofit Tender Funerals was expected to set up shop in an old Port Kembla fire station.