Across New Zealand, seniors are forming do-it-yourself “coffin clubs” to cope with death and loss, but these coffin-clubbers are not a somber a bunch; instead, they bring fun and personality to their own final journey through their charming docu-musical, The Coffin Club (dir. Briar March, 2017), a short film that suppresses the thought of something inevitably morbid, transforming it into a comic and unintimidating vision of death.
The story of the coffin club united through the elderly community members in Rotorua, New Zealand, who sought comfort in others due to their approaching death. The founder, Katie Williams, came up with the idea at age 77 and got a couple of her retired friends together to begin meeting and making coffins once a week. Williams said, “These people come and get a cuddle, they get a kiss, and they get cared about,” implying that those who join find solace and community when the club meets and the members embrace .
Director Briar March has been involved in a majority of the different aspects of the film industry as a producer, a cinematographer, an editor, and director. Her films have been broadcast on major television networks around the world, including PBS, Arte, and ABC Asia Pacific, have been released in commercial cinemas, and are regularly exhibited in film festivals. She has released two feature-length films, There Once was an Island: Te Henua e Nnoho in 2010 and another named A Place to Call Home in 2015, along with five short films–all within the boundaries of the documentary genre.
The choice to make this short film one big musical number was unusually satisfying and surprisingly appealing besides the fact we were watching elders sing about their impending death. The film naturally begins with the members of the coffin club setting the scene by portraying a funeral they are attending. This setting works in the film’s favor by not only telling the story through an expository perspective but also by keeping it entertaining and engaging from the very start.
The cinematography of the short is nothing out of the blue for standard documentaries. There are interview based shots, establishing, medium, long, and even some arial view shots. The lighting leans more towards the cinematic side in which there are spot lights set up for the stars rather than just natural lighting that a feature length documentary is more likely to lean towards.
The bright, and slightly staged costumes and setting are a little misleading but perfectly fitting for the overall effect. Obviously, the club does not go around singing about their purpose and dancing to rehearsed music, but this adds to the ironic effect of an ecstatic seniors expressing their intentions within their club; a clever use of the poetic documentary mode. If March had chosen to present the club in one of the more structured modes, such as the expository mode, the message could have made audiences uneasy about the idea of people preparing for death. Instead, the docu-musical form makes these coffin-clubbers a singing, dancing delight.
Overall, the coffin club features a spectacular group of people who are engaged in their community. This docu-musical is a beautiful representation of the club’s intentions, to have fun, while explaining the story of this group making a difference in the senior citizen community.