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Spiritual enlightenment on the transplant waitlist

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Paul Cox has death on his mind. But also life, as well as the very meaning of human existence, against the backdrop of vast universal mysteries. The veteran filmmaker's latest film Force of Destiny ponders these 'big questions' through the lens of a small story about a man discovering love while facing death.

It stars David Wenham as Robert, a sculptor left floundering on the waitlist for a liver transplant after a bleak prognosis for cancer. The film is based on Cox's memoir Tales From the Cancer Ward, which Wenham describes as a 'poetic, truthful and clear portrayal' of Cox's own time on the transplant waitlist.

'I've known Paul for quite a few years,' says Wenham. 'I did a film with him a number of years ago [1999's Molakai], and knew him during the whole journey of his illness, from diagnosis right through to him eventually receiving the transplant. When he asked me to be involved in the film, I felt privileged.'

So did Wenham's co-star, Shahana Goswami. 'The film is so personal, and so close to Paul's heart,' she says. New Delhi born Goswami plays marine biologist Maya, through whom Robert discovers romance and an Eastern spiritual and cultural approach to death that informs his own confrontation of mortality.

In part the film's almost hallucinogenic, metaphysical digressions are a product of the character's medically-altered state of consciousness. 'Chemotherapy brings a sense of disorientation,' Goswami explains, 'which often leads patients' minds to wander in directions they wouldn't have otherwise.'

This leads Robert, as it did Cox, to new insights into the nature of existence. 'We're a small speck in the universe,' says Wenham. 'It adds a fascinating layer to the film. We see how Indian culture deals with death. We in the West don't really understand and embrace death the way we should.'

On the face of it, you might think that portraying a story that is so personal to the filmmaker might bring with it a heightened sense of responsibility. 'I let that one go,' Wenham admits — he simply approached the role with the same integrity and dedication with which he'd approach any role.

'What I was aware of though, and I think we all were, was that we shot the hospital scenes at the Austin in Melbourne, which was the hospital where Paul had spent so many days and weeks and months. I think everybody involved was aware of what a profound effect that was probably having on Paul.'

'Paul has always been a very decisive director,' adds Goswami, 'in terms of how he wants things to be played. So it was very clear that he would guide you in the way he wanted you to take it. For me that was very reassuring, knowing that I didn't need to second guess what he needs — he would tell me.'

'He is a singular visionary,' agrees Wenhem. 'What you see on the screen is 100 per cent Paul. From the way the camera moves, to the sound, to the music, to the performances — it's all guided by Paul. You can put a Paul Cox film in with 100 other films, and you will know which one is the Paul Cox film.'

While the film portrays an experience that is 'similar' to Cox's, it is not autobiographical per se. 'Through the character of Robert, Paul is trying to distance himself from the story a bit,' says Wenham, 'so that it appears to be much bigger and more universal than just a story about Paul Cox and his illness.'

This universality was important, because as much as it is a formally ambitious and emotionally compelling film, Cox also had an egalitarian objective. 'He was so driven to make this film, because through his own experiences he had realised what a transplant gives to somebody,' says Wenham.

'He was aware that we had one of the lowest organ donation rates in the world and wanted to bring awareness to that so that people can see the effect of transplantation on people's lives. That was one of the driving forces behind Paul making this film and it's something I was more than willing to support.'

Force of Destiny will screen Saturday 5 September at Palace Verona in Paddington, NSW, followed by a Q+A with Paul Cox. This is part of a run of event screenings touring Australia until November. For a list of dates check the Screenings page at www.forceofdestiny.com.au

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, David Wenham, Paul Cox, Shahana Goswami, Force of Destiny, cancer, transplant



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"We in the West don't really understand and embrace death the way we should.' [Any surveys of western people on that? otherwise gratuitous that can be gratuitously denied.] 1.2 billion RC have teaching of Christ and His church re Death! And I talk as a cancer/stroke rehab, erstwhile student in Asia of Eastern eschatologies - but faced death twice with RC Last Rites not beholden to post reincarnation Nirvana

Father John George | 02 September 2015  

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