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Songs and sketches at the end of life

Director Camilla Rockwell (with director of photography John Maher) made 'Holding Our Own: Embracing the End of Life' because of her anxiety about death and dying. Director Camilla Rockwell (with director of photography John Maher) made "Holding Our Own: Embracing the End of Life" because of her anxiety about death and dying. (Jesse Carr)

"I made this film because I've had a conscious, lifelong anxiety about death and dying," says Vermont-based director Camilla Rockwell, of her new "Holding Our Own: Embracing the End of Life." She laughs when she adds, "I think all of us have an anxiety about it, but some of us attend to that more than others."

Rockwell worked with Ken Burns for many years, most recently as co-producer on "Thomas Jefferson." She's also been a hospice volunteer. About five years ago, she worked on a film about the pioneers of the modern hospice movement, and that sparked this one. "I wanted to make something that came less from the history and more directly from the heart," she says. Making her own movie was a way to jump in and go toward her fear.

The 57-minute documentary focuses on the work of Deidre Scherer, a Vermont artist who works with fabric and thread to create quilt-like portraits of older people. It also focuses on the music of the Hallowell singers, a Brattleboro-based choral group that visits people who are dying.

"My idea was that if you use art and music, it might help to bring people into a subject that they usually want to turn away from," says Rockwell. Her goal was, "first of all, to acknowledge aging and dying as a natural part of our life and bring vocabulary into our conversation about it, and to help families and caregivers and doctors and nurses talk about what even they have a hard time talking about."

Scherer is shown creating her artwork in her studio and making sketches at people's bedsides. "I've noticed that dying of a full life is still a rather taboo subject," Scherer says, turning the phrase "dying of old age" on its head. "There's a lot of information and a lot of visualization of dying violently, whereas most of us, over 85 percent of us, are going to actually live a full life."

One Hallowell choir member says in the film that for her, singing in nursing homes and hospices "has something to do with the fact that we want to be closer to our own death and dying, we want to be closer to when our loved ones are leaving and when we ourselves go. We want to have some role in it, we want to have some responsibility again."

"Holding Our Own" plays three times at the Museum of Fine Arts: today at noon, Friday at 5 p.m., and Nov. 1 at 1 p.m. Director Rockwell and artist Scherer will be down from Vermont for a post-film discussion today. MFA information is at 617-267-9300 and, and a trailer of the movie is at

CONVERSATION WITH: The MFA appearance today by Indian director Shyam Benegal has been canceled. But his 1976 film "Manthan" will still be screened. The movie is a drama about small-scale dairy farmers trying to get better rates from the large milk-processing companies that buy from them. The film was one of the first projects of Amrish Puri, an actor who has gone on to become a major Bollywood star.

Benegal served as head of the Film and Television Institute of India and received the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, India's lifetime achievement award for cinema, in August. His visit is copresented by the South Asia Initiative at Harvard.

RESOURCE FOR FILMMAKERS: Legal advice on how to protect an idea and what goes into collaboration agreements among producing partners is the agenda for a networking lunch being sponsored Oct. 30 by Women in Film & Video/New England. Entertainment lawyers Sandra Forman and Mary Landergan will be presenting and taking questions at the office of law firm Rich May in Boston.

Forman spent years at WGBH and now has her own Forman Entertainment Group. Landergan is with the firm of Rich May and teaches at Northeastern University School of Law. The event is open to the public but reservations are required; call 617-987-0021 or go to for further information.

SCREENINGS OF NOTE: Would you sit for 85 minutes to watch TV ads? What if they were super clever? Every year since the mid-1990s, a group of British commercials - they're termed "advertising films," natch - has made its way to the MFA, and every year they're popular enough that the MFA books them for multiple showings over several weeks. This year's crop includes cute ads for PG Tips tea and the BBC, a straightforward public service announcement on drunk driving, and an appearance by Elvis Presley. This week they play today at 10:20 a.m., Wednesday at 8:15 p.m., and Friday at 6:15 p.m.

"Witch City," a documentary critical of Salem's witch kitsch industry, plays today and next Sunday at 7 p.m. at CinemaSalem. Filmmakers Henry Ferrini of Gloucester and Joe Cultrera of Salem will be at both shows. Cultrera is the director of "Hand of God," a work that explored his brother's abuse by a priest in Salem. Ferrini's new "Polis Is This," about the poet Charles Olson, was given a Grand Festival Award at the Berkeley Video & Film Festival earlier this month. "Witch City" was made in 1997 and is described by the filmmakers as a "cautionary tale about the consequences of manipulating historical facts for present-day gains" (978-744-1400 and

The National Amusements movie theater chain has been running a program of double features called "Attack of the B Movies," bringing back classic horror films on Thursdays at 7 p.m. This is the final week, with "The Last Man on Earth" and "Devil Girl From Mars." They play at Showcase Cinemas Woburn (781-933-5330 and

And Harvard assistant professor of Slavic languages Jonathan Bolton will introduce the Boston premiere of "Czech Dream" on Friday at 7 p.m. at the ICA. Filmmakers/pranksters Vit Klusak and Filip Remunda designed an ad campaign for a fictitious big-box store and whipped up interest among Prague consumers with ads that said "Don't Go." They then filmed people showing up for the opening at an empty field - an event that sounds equal parts funny, cheeky, and insulting. In an interview earlier this year, Remunda said that irony is "part of the Czech mentality, and maybe the mentality of many small nations. When you are influenced by all the big countries around you, the only way to survive that situation is through humor." The movie also plays Saturday at 3:30 p.m. and is presented in association with Balagan Film Series (617-478-3103 and

Leslie Brokaw can be reached at

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