Cheating Death

Cheating Death

I am struck, in watching contemporary films, how death is often treated as an entertainment, a useful plot device, a dramatic diversion likely to unlock powerful emotions. Because none of us wants to die, and films play on that.

In Tidelands, a series I watched recently, just about every character is killed off in the last episode, randomly, as if this were Hamlet played out on the turquoise shores of Australia. Except that Hamlet is a grand tragedy, in which madness and death go hand in hand, whereas Tidelands is more of an ironic supernatural mystery romp with random death scenes that quite often have nothing to do with the main story. It must have just seemed to the screenwriter that it was time to kill off the characters. The last episode is 10 minutes shorter than any of the other episodes.

What’s the point? Dying and cheating death are no laughing matter.

I sometimes felt disoriented when filming The Blinding Sea. This made it more challenging to assess risks, and act accordingly

In producing and directing The Blinding Sea, I cheated death at least five times. If I hadn’t exposed myself to the extreme conditions of the Arctic and Antarctic, with my cameras, I doubt I could have made emotional sense of the risks involved for polar explorers a century ago. Because cheating death is not in the realm of reason: it is firmly in the realm of deep emotions, of the survival instinct silver-etched on the heart. I took the photos at the top and bottom of this blog of sand dunes near Zagora, in the Sahara. I inverted the colours to bring these images closer to what seems to me the touch-and-feel of cheating death.

For polar explorers a century ago, cheating death involved facing the risk of being eaten alive by ice and snow, getting whipped through-and-through by hurricane-force winds, suffering concussions on hard-packed furrows of snow (sastrugi), getting severe frostbite, disappearing into glacier crevices, suffering from hunger and depression, being swept off the deck of sailing ships in stormy weather.

Shackleton made a career of cheating death, because when risks proved greater than he anticipated, he then compensated by showing charismatic leadership, saving the life of every man

Most importantly, cheating death involved reaching key decision points – deciding whether to go this way, or that way – making critical lifesaving choices. Some polar explorers, like Scott, made choices that proved futile and even catastrophic. And those choices were definitely in the realm of deep emotions.

Having said that, there is a strange no-man’s-land between life and death, a place of altered states and heightened consciousness, as you feel the full impact of risks, and are made acutely aware of the need for appropriate actions at key decision points. In the hurling wind of the polar desert, things can be very stark.

Amundsen doubtless cheated death many times, but didn’t make a big deal of it. He factored into his planning that polar conditions would be extreme, and he was skilled at risk assessment.

Shackleton cheated death and even made it the central piece of his exploration strategy: he was better at cheating death than at factoring risks into his planning. He knew when to turn back, during the march South on the Nimrod expedition, and he saved the lives of every single man marooned on Elephant Island, during the Endurance expedition. Shackleton never achieved his stated expedition objectives: but this does not mean he failed. Far from it! By knowing when to turn back, and how to save everyone, he tacitly acknowledged he hadn’t assessed risks very well. His total commitment to his men stands today as a stunning example of leadership.

There are many lessons to learn, in the examples of Amundsen and Shackleton.

Death is not just an entertainment, like in the dreamworld of TV nowadays, with fake blood spurting here and there.

Cheating death takes humility, courage and above all vision. And on that silver-etched landscape of extreme risk, it sometimes seems like a dance one-on-one with fate. Once you inch towards the point of no return, it is best to take stock of the situation, count your blessings, and head home.

By focusing on polar heroes, many biographers miss the point: cheating death is not just highly dramatic. Leaders who are good at cheating death need to know their limits, and when it is best to turn back, and live on. There is nothing heroic in sacrificing lives for the sake of abstractions; there is little point in waxing poetic about the “meaning” of death, as if mere words could capture or reverse anything

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