Bereaved father's cancer dreaming

Burning Man (MA). Director: Jonathan Teplitzky. Matthew Goode, Bojana Novakovic, Jack Heanly. 109 minutes

How time can move both fast and slow, amazes me.* A year, an age ago we walked in solidarity with the family of a sick little girl. This year we walked in her memory. There's nothing to say to parents who had hoped, believed for a miracle, but instead watched their child wilt and die. Only that it sucks. Totally sucks. Or more vulgar words to that effect.

Grief can be changeable and unpredictable . For some it arrives as a geyser of emotion. Others lament a numbness that knows no such catharsis. 'I haven't really cried,' admits one bereaved father. We are circling a sports oval in the hills outside Melbourne, sharing the charity walk with hundreds of others — friends and families of those who were living with, dying of, or dead from the effects of cancer. He feels he hasn't mourned.

A new Australian film, Burning Man, deconstructs the grief of a man who has lost his wife to cancer. It opens with strung-out Bondi Beach chef Tom (Goode) flipping his car amid city traffic. Hung upside down by his seatbelt, he gazes dazedly at the blacktop as fuel leaking from the car begins to flame.

The film unfolds as a shamble of flashbacks of the lead-up to, and aftermath of, Sarah's (Novakovic) illness and death, and its impact upon Tom and their son, Oscar (Heanly). The non-linear structure presents a challenge to the viewer's concentration, but allows the film to consider heavy themes without getting too maudlin, too often; dramatic encounters segue easily with humorous scenes.

The prismatic structure also reflects, perhaps, the fragmentation of memory by grief. Occasionally, the flames from Tom's present-day car crash appear incongruously within episodes that are long past. It's as if Tom is sorting through mental detritus to make sense of the insensible.

Mourning, after all, is a process, not a moment. An obvious truth, but no comfort to my friend at the charity walk. His sleep is filled either with dreams where she's alive, or nightmares where he watches her die. I'm not sure which would be worse: to fear going to sleep, or to regret waking up. 'I feel like I haven't moved on,' he says. 'Everyone expects me to.' But how could you, ever, completely?

'Frankly it's shit,' the ABC's Russell Woolf told actor William McInnes, of the news that McInnes' wife, filmmaker Sarah Watt, had been diagnosed with secondary bone cancer. Watt succumbed to the disease on Friday, just weeks after the interview. 'The fact of the matter is that some people just get cancer,' McInnes said. 'It just happens ... sometimes it's what life throws up at you.'

For Burning Man's Tom, hope eventually emerges in the form of his relationship with Oscar, from whose resilience and emotional honesty he is able to draw strength. It's a point that bears reflection as we, bereaved father and wordless companion, circle that Healesville track: that in the mythical task of 'moving on', strength can be found in the faithful support of family and friends.

It could even be that they are the miracle that seems to have been denied. 

*Bright Eyes, 'I Believe in Symmetry'

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street


Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Burning Man, Relay for Life, Cancer



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