Arts & Healing Network Interview with Nancee Sobonya, creator of the documentary film, The Gifts of Grief
“Many times grief unmasks us and we are stripped down to our real, vulnerable self… As the loss burns and the waves of grief crash through them, some people discover something inside themselves that they never knew existed — a depth of compassion, of understanding, of strength and courage, a connection with humanity.”
— Nancee Sobonya
Nancee Sobonya is a filmmaker, teacher, and bereavement counselor who has just produced her first documentary called The Gifts of Grief. Since she was a young girl, Nancee “felt a calling to serve in the healing and teaching traditions.” For the past twenty years, she has worked in the field of death and bereavement, including spending seventeen years as the Bereavement Outreach Coordinator at Pathways Hospice. She also teaches at Starr King School of Ministry, and is a minister of the Ridhwan School of Spiritual Development, guiding people on their inner journey of self discovery.
With her documentary The Gifts of Grief, Nancee has found another conduit to help those experiencing death and loss. The film shares the compelling personal stories of several people who experienced deep loss including Isabel Allende, Alana Lorraine, and the Reverend Cecil Williams. The film invites us to open to pain, learn from loss, and remember the preciousness of life. Danny Hobson interviewed Nancee in the fall of 2005 about filmmaking, creativity, and healing from loss.
Danny Hobson: Tell me about the creation of The Gifts of Grief. What inspired you to make this documentary film?
Nancee Sobonya: My intention was to make a film that invites us to experience the universality of loss in a real and personal way through the intimate stories of people facing remarkable losses. I also wanted to create an artful film that was not just another educational or traditional documentary, but a film with beauty, space and moments to reflect on and take in what is being communicated. My hope is that this film inspires and gently invites the viewer to open to their own grief, embrace the pain, and discover for themselves the extraordinary possibilities their own losses may reveal.
Working with people in grief has been an honor and privilege for me. Many times grief unmasks us, and we are stripped down to our real, vulnerable self. I’ve been inspired by people’s courage to embrace their grief and find some way to ride the storming waves of loss. As the loss burns and the waves of grief crash through them some people discover something inside themselves that they never knew existed — a depth of compassion, of understanding, of strength and courage, a connection with humanity. This has always inspired me, and I wanted to share with others this great gift I have been given through my work with people in grief.
Danny: What was the process like of making the film, and how did you find the people you interviewed?
Nancee: The film was a rich and challenging four year process. This film feels like a culmination of all of my years in grief work. When I realized I was the one to make this documentary, I began studying film at the Film Arts Foundation (FAF) in San Francisco and have continued there for the past four years.
Being a grief counselor, it was not difficult to find people to interview. I asked my colleagues and looked around the various groups I was involved and found twenty people over a period of two and a half years. Isabel Allende gave the sermon at our church one Sunday and spoke of her daughter’s death. I wrote to her asking her to be a part of the film which she graciously accepted. Loretta Huahn’s husband had been in our Hospice program years back, and I met her in a grief group. I had no intention of interviewing anyone who experienced a loss during the 9/11 tragedy, and then I met Kenner Stross in one of the film classes at FAF. I had been following the films of Lee Mun Wah for years when I bumped into him at a service held for 9/11 and told him about my project, he then told me of his journey through the violent death of his mother. Alana Lorraine sang in the Glide Ensemble with myself and Roosevelt who died of AIDS. He was a dear friend to us both, and Cecil Williams, of course, was the pastor of our church, and so it went on like this.
Danny: Could you share one of the highlights of the process? And one of the challenges?
Nancee: The highlight of creating the film was the interviews. It was wonderful to spend such real, raw and meaningful time with each person. The challenge throughout the process was financial. I had to find enough funds between my own personal contributions and fundraising efforts to continue making the film. I attempted numerous grants but was turned down for being a first time filmmaker. This is the main reason the film took four years to complete. Though looking back, the film really matured over this period of time.
Danny: How do you sustain the good creative work you are doing even in the face of challenges, both creative and financial?
Nancee: My spiritual practice has sustained me throughout my creative work. Staying in contact with essential presence and being steadfast has allowed me to draw on all the resources necessary when facing the financial, emotional and creative obstacles of my projects. I’m tremendously grateful and humbled by the truth of this. I have had the feeling at times that grace has carried me along. As well as the incredible support financially, creatively and emotionally from my dear friends, family and a wonderful network of people who have believed in this project from its inception.
Danny: Filmmaking is a very collaborative art form. Could you speak a little about the process of collaboration in making The Gifts of Grief.
Nancee: I learned very quickly from my film courses — when in doubt — hire the best, and I was very fortunate to find some wonderfully skilled people to assist me in making this film. Vicente Franco is an incredible cinematographer. He brought such visual beauty to the film. My primary editor was Bob Goss who had worked on Mun Wah’s film The Color of Fear, another dialogue-driven, educational film about a sensitive subject, so he was perfect for this film. He also was open to mentoring my partner, Ted Seymour, who took on half of the editing job.
We met every week for over a year as a very creative and collaborative team, working and reworking all the footage to express the vision I had. We were a wonderful team. We were really able to spark off each other and take the project forward without a lot of conflict or creative clashing. We definitely found a groove that worked for us and respected each other’s gifts and insights.
We also screened the film at a number of house parties and fundraisers. This feedback was essential in helping us to better understand the reactions people were having to the film and enabling us to make a film which was sensitive to people with widely varying experiences of grief.
Danny: How has the film been received so far?
Nancee: The film has been wonderfully received. I have screened it twice in the San Francisco Bay Area (another screening is coming up in Marin County at the end of October) and presented it at international conferences on grief, death and hospice this summer. Each time I screen it, people open up and share their own experiences of loss. It is quite a special time together speaking from such a real, heart-full human place and listening to both the unique and universal experiences of grief.
The film speaks to such a universal, timeless issue and so many tragedies and losses have touched us in these last few years. I am hoping to find funds to create a guidebook to go with the film, funds that will assist distributing it to all churches, schools, hospitals, libraries, universities and hospices throughout the country and into the homes of each person who has known loss.
Danny: Do you believe art can heal?
Nancee: I believe art that heals touches us on a universal level, speaking to the heart, soul and psyche of being human. It gives voice, shape, color, and sound to our pain, love, joy and patterns, speaking often to what we cannot say. I feel art can inspire and wake us up to our truest nature that then can heal and move us toward greater wholeness.
Danny: Was the process of making the film healing for you and those who participated in it?
Nancee: Yes, in making this film I rediscovered that “who I am” is my gift of grief, my unique unfoldment, capacities and contributions to this world have been so perfectly and personally shaped through my experiences of love and loss. I’m realizing this on a much deeper level than I ever have before and feel myself in a new place of even greater expansion — full of potential and creativity. Stay tuned — there is more to come.
Ted feels he is often touched still whenever he watches the film. As he says, “There’s almost always something new — depending what I’m ready for — always some place that touches me differently than the last time I watched it. The guidepost for all of us was — did we get moved by it and letting our own sensitivity be the guide for making this film.”
And Bob, he had a very intimate experience of grief. His father died rather suddenly while we were making the film. For sometime he couldn’t work on it, because the loss was too close, but over time a deeper appreciation and sensitivity of grief emerged through him and he had renewed energy and new insights to bring to the film. It was quite stunning to watch the gifts of grief unfolding in front of us through him.
Danny: Could you offer some words of wisdom to those going through an experience of loss and grief?
Nancee: Allow yourself to be open to grief, let it wash through you, ride the waves of pain. It often doesn’t go away when we try to stop or deny our grief — the pain keeps coming. Grief is a process with a beginning, middle and end — give yourself the time and permission to let grief move through you, touch you, teach you, grow you. It is a natural part of life — listen to its deepest meaning. If your pain needs to speak — give it ways to creatively express itself through words, art, colors, music, writing or service.
And remember you are not alone in your grief — our losses are like threads connecting our hearts to the one heart of being human. I’ve heard it said “When we are hungry, we eat; when we are thirsty, we drink; and when we love, we grieve.” Allow yourself to feel both your love and your loss together, they are not separate. Sometimes we do not know the depth of our love until that moment of separation. I encourage you — do not forget the love.
Danny:What advice do you have for others who would like to use creativity as a healing catalyst?
Nancee: Give yourself time for reflection and listen to what deeply moves and touches you. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, to be touched by life often points to what’s in need of healing in ourselves. Being open and present to our own healing seems to bring a sensitivity and aliveness to the soul that often cannot help but be expressed creatively.