‘There’s a real hunger to discuss death’

PUBLISHED: 07:00 20 September 2017

Still from documentary Almost Heaven by Carol Salter

Still from documentary Almost Heaven by Carol Salter


Carol Salter chose the subject of her first feature documentary amid concern she would not cope with the impending death of her elderly mum and dad

Still from documentary Almost Heaven by Carol SalterStill from documentary Almost Heaven by Carol Salter

Carol Salter chose the subject of her first feature documentary amid concern she would not cope with the impending death of her elderly mum and dad.

But she says filming at a Chinese ‘death spa’ where the deceased are massaged, cleansed and given facials and manicures, Has helped her come to terms with their passing.

“I was caring for my ageing parents, aware that I was going to have to deal with losing them and I heard about young Chinese people choosing this as a career and I wanted to explore that,” she says.

“When I was 17 I never thought about death. As with a lot of cultures death here is very taboo – we don’t’ even look inside the coffin.”

Sadly both Salter’s parents and an uncle died while she was making the documentary – a small legacy helped her to complete the largely self-funded project which she edited in her spare bedroom.

“The young people have such great spirit, humanity and sense of humour. They honour respect and talk to the deceased, give them back their dignity while their families watched. I thought that was incredible, the idea to cleanse them of illness and pain so they have a better journey.”

Citing the emergence of ‘death cafes’ in the UK which offer a safe space to talk about dying, Salter adds that the film’s gentle humour and tenderness offered a tangential way to reflect upon our mortality: “I realised there’s a real hunger to discuss this. I never wanted to go to China but I felt I needed to distance the subject from myself because I knew I was going to have to deal with it on a personal level.

“Coming at it from a different culture and different world offers that perspective.”

She says the film is also “a coming of age tale”, following Ying Ling on her journey to the city to take up her new career.

“She’s a young girl fresh and innocent, frightened of ghosts and the dark, making her way in life – when we were filming both of us were just as scared. I had never seen a dead body before I made the film.

“When mum and dad passed away, I found it extremely hard. My mum passed away in hospital – we were with her but then we left while they dealt with the body.

“But I decided to go and see my dad even though I still felt a coward and couldn’t get as close as when I had when filming. But after making the film I didn’t want to run away from it. It was a strange process, a rite of passage for me and a parallel of my own personal journey.”

After studying at art school Salter made films for Oxfam and worked as a freelance film editor before making the documentary, which won acclaim at the Berlin Film Festival and was nominated for best documentary.

It is now enjoying a limited cinema release with Salter attending a series of Q&As around London.

“Audiences have really warmed to the film. It’s really exciting that it’s having a momentum of its own. For me it’s been a labour of love, a passion project, I went to China on my own with a tiny camera and funded a lot of it myself.”

She also hopes the post screening discussions will “give the space for people to talk”.

“The film isn’t a personal story it’s observational but grief is universal and it allows people to reflect on their own situation. It’s a sort of canvas for people to talk about death which is so often sanitised.”

Almost Heaven is at Picturehouse Central from September 22 for a week, Crouch End Picturehouse on September 26, and Hackney Picturehouse on October 2.


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