Zenith Virago introduced herself as the local death walker when she met Art History and Visual Arts Chair Broderick Fox at the Byron Bay International Film Festival in 2012. Virago, the subject of Fox’s new documentary “Zen and the Art of Dying,” presides over non-traditional weddings and funerals in her adopted home, Byron Bay, Australia. Fox’s most recent documentary, which screened at Occidental on Wednesday, April 1, exposes viewers to a fresh outlook on death through the lens of Virago’s life.
As a death walker, it is Virago’s responsibility to guide and empower families through the grieving process by organizing personalized, natural funerary rites. These rites encourage mourners to take their time accepting death, but ultimately to move on. Alongside his executive producer and partner Lee Biolos, Fox began a five-week journey to document Virago’s impact on the community of Byron Bay.
In the opening scene, a great tree stands as a figure piece in the natural funerary space opened by Virago and her peers in Byron Bay. A group of people who have all lost loved ones hold hands and hang mementos from the tree. Virago guides them through a cathartic ceremony of remembrance that ends with the whole crowd screaming the word “love” at the top of their lungs.
Virago is candid throughout the film, providing the viewer with an intimate look into her struggles with motherhood, sexuality and death. According to Fox, death remains a taboo topic in Western society, even though everyone must eventually face it. In contrast, Virago views death as something that should be respected. For her, death is a return to nothingness.
Fox’s efforts to showcase this more positive perspective on death are evident in the first scene that he shot for the film, which takes place at the 56th birthday party of a terminally ill woman. The somber tone of this scene is turned around by the positivity the dying woman brings to the room; she leads a song and shows that she will not squander the time she has left on earth.
The rest of the film largely focuses on Virago’s personal anecdotes, which parallel the themes and ideals characteristic of her unique take on funerals. She believes that families ought to be in full control over the funerary rites of their loved ones, encouraging people to conduct their own ceremonies unencumbered by the expenses and bureaucratic distractions of traditional ceremonies. Virago understands that funerals may function not only as a celebration of life, but an acknowledgement of the death and an opportunity for loved ones to take their time to contemplate and process loss.
Virago’s story is unconventional from start to finish. She has three children but did not raise any of them from birth, choosing to leave them with their fathers so she might travel and get to know herself. She traveled for years after leaving the UK, then emigrated to Australia and realized she was a lesbian.
The audience meets only one of her children in the film. His father, a gay Australian man, committed suicide when the boy was thirteen. A grown man now, Virago’s son recalls going through the mourning process with his mother and emphasizes that the experience, while painful, helped him and his mother grow stronger as a family.
Students reacted favorably to the film. Michiharu Ono (sophomore) said she was moved by the positive perspective people had on death, while Sarah Schiele (sophomore) explained that it caused her to think differently about her own experiences with death.
“As someone who really struggles with the grieving process after losing a loved one, learning about this new approach definitely made me feel more comfortable and understanding of death in my own life,” Schiele said.
Fox has explored the theme of death in previous works. His first feature, “The Skin I’m In,” is an autobiographical piece that chronicles the professor’s own experience with bodily shame, addiction, suppressed sexual identity and suicide.
“I’ve pursued a career-long aesthetic of embodied media,” Fox said. “A lot of my work has dealt with conversations around bodily pain, illness and death.”
He describes death as the great equalizer, and his most recent film finds a way to open the doors to further discussion about a problem that many people are not prepared to deal with when it arrives.