Losing Layla

(Vanessa Gorman, 2001)

Grief is an uncomfortable subject. How does one express it in a culture that flinches from unhappiness and pain? What is the proper place for grief in a society that has lost touch with many of its ritual ways of dealing with the loss of a loved one? Should grief be a private experience, or publicly expressed?

Losing Layla is a courageous documentary that confronts and raises these issues in an excruciating manner. It is a deeply disturbing film because it relentlessly excavates grief. It is equally troubling, however, because it also parades a host of ethical issues that relate to the way in which we use the media to mediate fundamental human experiences. It is important to look at how the film operates on these two levels, particularly because while the film is transparent about its subject (that is, grief), it is not transparent about the process involved in making such an emotionally tricky film.

Losing Layla started off as a video diary exploring the impact of writer/director/producer Vanessa Gorman’s decision to have a child. Approaching 40, her choice to be a mother was restricted to now or never, even if it meant endangering the relationship she had with her partner Michael. “It was the story of my desperation to have a baby and how this might mean losing my partner”, she says in the opening of the film. “Instead it became the story of losing our daughter”. It is from this statement on that the viewer is complicit in an intimate experience of a couple’s pain.

Vanessa apparently spent four years documenting her attempts to become a mother. We are privy to bedroom scenes; both love making and morning pillow talk. Finally the positive results of a urine test are triumphantly revealed. Vanessa is pregnant.

Throughout this early part of the film, Michael, Vanessa’s partner, has two ‘babies’ foisted on him: the video diary and the unborn Layla. It is his initial ambivalence about exposing himself to a camera and the complexity of his responses to Vanessa’s pregnancy that make him an interesting character to follow in what would otherwise be a fairly unremarkable documentation of a couple’s relationship.

We watch Vanessa’s stomach grow in time lapse. We witness the tension that is provoked by the imminent arrival of a new baby. We see Vanessa walk the town proudly displaying her bulging belly. Vanessa is in love with being pregnant. Michael is still unsure.

In hospital Vanessa suffers a fruitless labour for about 20 hours, and then finally decides to give birth to Layla through a caesarean. Newborn Layla’s breathing problems forecast doom. She is flown by helicopter with father Michael to another hospital away from her mother. 8 hours later, Layla dies having barely made her acquaintance to her parents.

It is at this point that the video diary becomes the film, Losing Layla, the documentary that was broadcast on primetime TV. Whether we want to see more or not, we are gripped as the film goes on, now with the camera in the able hands of Cathy Henkel (also doubling as the film’s producer), and several others. Layla’s body is brought back to her mother who is able to keep the child’s body with her for 4 days in hospital, a testament to the humanity of the hospital staff. There, in the throes of inconsolable grief, Vanessa and Michael lovingly bathe, cuddle, and dress Layla’s body. These rituals, albeit bizarre in appearance, show for Michael and Vanessa that Layla had a place in the world, and a place in the family, as her body is proudly shown to a passing parade of supportive family and friends.

There are more ceremonies to mark Layla’s short life and her death. There is a family ceremony attended by some of the hospital staff and Vanessa and Michael’s friends and relatives. Here, Michael wears his pain openly in the guise of a poem, expressing his outrage that fatherhood was so swiftly taken from him. A formal funeral service finally sees Layla’s tiny coffin disappear behind pink curtains, while the family belts out their grief in gospel tunes. Some time later we are taken lovingly though Layla’s special cupboard by Vanessa which contains the child’s blankets and toys. We are then shown the ‘altar’ to the dead Layla, which keeps her presence alive. Then there is a community ceremony that gives Vanessa and Michael another opportunity to publicly display their grief. Finally, we see Michael and Vanessa scatter Layla’s ashes in a ceremony that takes place on the water.

Vanessa discusses several months after Layla’s death how western society has lost touch with rituals that express mourning. This is one of the motivations, I presume, for watching and making Losing Layla. While there is certainly truth in this belief of Vanessa’s, I would argue that the community which Vanessa and Michael were part of facilitated the very public expression of grief over and over. The film itself is an undeniable public expression of grief. Her statement about the loneliness and isolation of grieving, as much as I empathise with her awful situation, only makes me wonder how people with less of a support network, and in a financially stretched hospital, would cope. The film raises many other questions too. While Vanessa is so much on display, in the role of Mater Dolorosa, I feel I really learnt very little about her, other than that she was very sad, and that losing a baby must be a terrible experience.

What is striking about this film is its intimacy, although I was never fully convinced that there wasn’t a constant awareness by Vanessa and Michael of the camera and its ability to make an indelible mark on the portrayal of the couple. The intimacy in this was facilitated to a large degree by a Mini Digital camera, a technology and format which often brings the video diary format to the television screens. These cameras are unobtrusive, lightweight and relatively simple to use, and give us “access” to places and situations where it is otherwise often difficult or impossible to obtain, simply because with this camera technology there is no need for a crew. One of the philosophies behind this technique to making a film is that this raw medium ensures that we are mining a deeper level of the truth because of the spontaneity of the minimal set up and the access to the subject. Access is extremely important for this film, because it is what Losing Layla offers above all else, in all its glory, whether you as a viewer are ready for it or not. The idea of ‘truth’ is what bothers me, because there are certain facets of the process of making this film that would have ‘got in the way of a good story.’

Very early in the wake of the news of the child’s death, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Australian Film Finance Corporation agreed to fund the documentary. What would have been very interesting is to have been privy to those negotiations with board members and commissioning editors. Would the cameras have kept rolling if the ABC had not commissioned the project? What discussions about privacy and solitude in mourning took place? To what extent is the subject of the film, Layla’s death, exposed on television simply because Vanessa and Michael agreed to keep the cameras on after the death? There is also no mention of Vanessa’s experience as a filmmaker, and how this would help or hinder the expression of her grief.

One cannot help being moved or even traumatised by Losing Layla, but the film asks us to accept the way the story was told because pain and suffering is its raison d’être. Losing Layla is a product of forces that are not mentioned in its content, those being the industry experience of television producer/director Vanessa Gorman and the enthusiasm of broadcasters for explicit material. These factors do not alter the basic tragedy of Layla’s death and the suffering her parents must feel but it does makes me think things are not always the way they seem.

About The Author

Kate Hampel is writer-director of many short fiction and documentary productions, most recently Hear No Evil (1997, SBS Independent doco) and The Loved Ones (1999, ABC TV doco). She is currently researching and writing a television documentary about dementia and the Holocaust.