David Marshall’s Beginning With The End takes a look at teacher Bob Kane’s elective Hospice class for high school seniors. Over the course of the semester, students are asked to speak honestly and openly about their feelings, fears and experiences as they work as caregivers for various patients in the final days of their lives. Taught the basics of practical care, but emphasizing the importance of being willing to give care and be there over the expertise, students go through a variety of different experiences as they care for the dying, and their families. It can be an intense situation, but as the film goes on you can see that intensity transform into something more understanding and less fearful. The fears of the self start to melt away when forced to focus one’s care and attention outward.
The documentary reveals itself naturally, with the growth and understanding of the students seen over the course of the semester as it occurs, and then expressed in their own words. Sure, there’s also broader conversation about personal connection and the like, sometimes theoretical moments where we have to take the talking heads’ word for it, but the film really makes an impression through the screen in the candid moments when we just see the interaction without the explanation, or hear the students talk unguarded about their fears in therapeutic group meetings with the rest of the class. Then we get to recognize the impact of those connections and care, and see just how far the students have personally progressed over the film.
Of course, another route to go with this film would’ve been to focus specifically on one or two students, and the families they’re working with, but I like the almost meditative look around the varied experiences of the entire class. Some get more camera time than others, certainly, but there’s a feeling of a broader view that lets it all sink in more smoothly. It’s like the filmmakers decided they would present a structure for the audience to work within, without being too particular about what story they felt was the most worth telling. Considering the subject matter of the film, that’s the most respectful route you can take.
And ultimately, that’s what this is, a respectful view of a unique class of high school seniors as they volunteer at hospice. I think it’s easy to think of the experience for all involved as life-changing, and no doubt it is, but I also see it more as a series of small life-altering adaptations that add up; the wiring of the empathy centers getting tweaked ever so much more coming out of what can be a selfish phase of human development, the teenage years. These kids have a head start on the rest of us who might be doing our best to look away from the mortality of ourselves by ignoring the mortality of others. We’ll eventually learn the same lessons, hopefully, but it may take longer.