Serena Dc directs, produces, co-wrote (with Victoria Licon), and hosts Beyond the Grave. The filmmaker opens her documentary by saying she believes there is a soul separate from the body and that it continues without it. This immediately grabs my attention as something to flesh out over the next 90 minutes. Unfortunately, the movie is an uneven package of library footage and interviews. Spoiler: There really isn’t much more to it than closing with the same belief stated in the beginning.
Dc meets Mary Telliano, an end-of-life coach. She provides mysticism and palliative care to the terminally ill. Telliano claims her photos of a dying client show the soul leaving the body and seems to venture that fear of death is a product of patriarchy. Then there’s neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, who was in a coma and came back to write about it in best sellers. He insists his near-death experience proves memories aren’t stored in the brain, which can’t have helped his neurosurgery. Adam Curry talks credibly about the mystery of how these experiences all seem similar, but he’s a web developer, so his inclusion seems odd.
“…claims her photos of a dying client show the soul leaving the body…”
Beyond the Grave gets massively interesting when we reach Max More, Ph.D. The muscular, self-titled “strategic philosopher” is shot with a furtive style that makes you not trust him. The President Emeritus of Alcor, which has a literal head count of 200 people in hopeful cryostasis, is the highlight of this film, casually describing the interesting mechanics of cryogenics to a fascinated Dc. The best bit is when she worries people might be frozen conscious, and More cheerily assures her nothing survives the embalming. He directly counters the director’s prevailing theory, which feels like good journalism, a nice rounding error from the wildness of cryo science, but the other interviewees have too little to say.
My big issue here (I know I am being a blowhard) is that I want rockets to fly and electric bikes not to fry. But Serena Dc’s superstitious spin on everything is off-putting. There is an old expression in computing, GIGO – Garbage In, Garbage Out. None of this is garbage, as the filmmaker stages and shoots her interviews well, but the participants mostly bring little to the table. Of course, interviews are what documentaries thrive or die by. And by offering only baseline platitudes, this look into souls is superficial.
Still, Beyond the Grave is well enough put together, even though it relies heavily on stock footage (fish, clouds, abstract CGI models, etc). It’s beautifully done all the same. The idea of a soul or life after death will always be an interesting topic, but it needs more wrestling into shape than was done here. I like Dc’s style and wouldn’t mind seeing more of her motion pictures, but this one is an empty vessel.
"…interviews are what documentaries thrive or die by."