VCA Digital Archive: Life after death

Still from Deep Six. Credit: Gila Fisher.
Still from Deep Six. Credit: Gila Fisher.

The VCA Digital Archive is a living audiovisual record of student films that date back to 1966. The articles in this series respond thematically to the depth and breadth of the collection, which will be available for research from mid-2019. Enjoy!

By Angus Attwood

What happens when we die? That’s one of humanity’s most pervasive questions, and it’s of particular interest to storytellers. Through filmmaking, directors are able to present their own ideas of what the afterlife may be. Within the digital archives of the VCA are characters who have experienced life after death as funny, scary, comforting, and incomprehensible, in films that speak to the unique perspectives of their directors.

Death is an understandably scary subject, and the horror genre often involves the dead returning to life in some way. Jamie Blanks’ Silent Number (1993) explores the classic urban legend of a babysitter receiving ominous calls from an unknown number as she talks to a young boy who complains of being “trapped” and “so cold”.

The chilling finale reveals the source of the calls – a downed phone line connected to the boy’s nearby grave, metaphysically connecting him to the outside world. The phone calls are the expressions of agony from a boy trapped inside his own coffin, seemingly unaware of his own death.

Silent Number. Jamie Blanks. 1993. Suspense.

Mal in Michael Kratochvil’s Igor and Mal (2007) is similarly able to convey the torment of death when his brother hires a psychic to bring him back to life. Mal frantically explains to Igor that a mysterious higher power is monitoring humanity through electronic signals in life to further study us upon death: “We’re here so they can learn.”

Mal warns Igor not to trust anything from now on as he gives Igor, and the audience, a glimpse into the afterlife through a psychedelic mix of images and memories. The story culminates in Igor throwing open the door and staring out into the unknown, the viewer seeing only white light flooding his joyous expression that slowly falls to confused horror as the light darkens.

The film ends with static on a television screen, suggesting the living are unable to comprehend whatever may await us.

Igor and Mal. Michael Kratochvil. 2007. Horror.

Some writer-directors explore the topic with a lighter comedic touch to demonstrate how our petty problems can follow us beyond death.

This is the case for George and Bonnie, the leads of Gila Fisher’s Deep Six (2017), a recently deceased married couple that wakes up in the morgue to continue the arguments they were having in life. It’s only when they remember the love between them (and apologise for accidentally killing each other) that the two peacefully fade away into nothingness.

Deep Six. Gila Fisher. 2017. Dark Comedy.

In The Return Trip (Jeremy Teh, 2017), teenager Ry, unsatisfied with his funeral, returns to the land of the living for a day in an attempt to throw himself a proper going-away party. Through his attempts to get his friends together to say goodbye, Ry comes to realise how his selfishness has impacted them, encouraging them to follow their own desires before proudly moving on and leaving them with fond final memories together.

The Return Trip. Jeremy Teh. 2017. Comedy.

Even if the dead have come to terms with their own departures, the pain of losing a loved one can continue to impact the living. In these cases the dead may return, either as spirits or through reincarnation, to offer comfort to those they’ve left behind.

The widower in Andrew O’Keefe’s A Dinner for Two (1999) is guided by the ghostly presence of his wife as she helps prepare his dinner and prevents his attempted suicide. Yet when he breaks down at the end of the film the wife’s figure is absent, suggesting that while she can offer comfort he will ultimately have to overcome his grief alone.

A Dinner for Two. Andrew O’Keefe. 1999. Drama.

In Yaxuan Yu’s animation The Tree (2012) the spirit of the protagonist’s husband returns via reincarnation within a tree that she regularly sits under. By writing notes that she leaves in the tree’s trunk the protagonist is able to communicate with him directly and thank him for the flowers he provides for her, and through some unknown magic he is able to respond.

These films use supernatural means to suggest to their audiences that death is not the end, and that the living can still take comfort and guidance through the memories of their loved ones.

The Tree. Yaxuan Yu. 2012. Animation.‚Äč

While it’s impossible to know what happens after death, through filmmaking directors are able to achieve a strange immortality of their own. Within the VCA’s Digital Archive, the works of past students can be viewed and studied by generations of artists long after the original creators have left the discipline, ensuring that the characters and stories of their films always have a way of coming back to life.

Wank Sock. Annie Murray. 2017. Comedy.

No matter what the afterlife may be, one can hope it turns out better for us than the unfortunate protagonist of Annie Murray’s comically bleak animation Wank Sock (2017).

After a humiliating death on her birthday, her ghost being shredded by an aeroplane, and every one of her reincarnations being immediately killed off, the poor girl ends up as a single sperm discarded in the titular “wank sock”. Talk about a rough way to go.

Angus Attwood graduated from the VCA in 2018 with a masters degree in Film and Television. He has published articles on cinema and pop-culture with Peephole Journal, The Big Issue magazine, and the AACTA website, as well as his own film reviews on his website Wooden Writing.

The VCA Digital Archive series of articles were commissioned as part of a grant from the University of Melbourne, Student Services Amenities Fee. University of Melbourne staff and students and some industry people dipped into the FTV archive and watched films based on themes. The idea was to use the archive as stimulus in which to curate and create. Some responses are completely creative, others are reviews, others are word art pieces.

The full collection is available for research.