Death is a common theme on television. We watch people get shot, stabbed, strangled, blown up and more with numbing regularity on a variety of fictional shows.
Real death, however, is another thing. It remains a taboo. We shy from it, we fear it, we don’t talk about it. This, despite the fact that we will all face it.
Our fragile mortality, however, comes into focus on the small screen on Friday when Showtime premieres an unsettling, raw and touching documentary series called “Time of Death.”
Each episode documents the real-life death of a new subject, and chronicles in unflinching detail the way they and their families cope. Sometimes we watch as a subject takes a final breath, the death rattle all too visceral — a reminder of things we have lived through with those we have lost, or will live through one day.
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One family’s story is woven throughout all six episodes of the show. The dying woman is Maria Lencioni, a single mother who received a diagnosis of stage four breast cancer. She has three children: Nicole (who’s nickname is “Little”), 26, Julia, 15, and Andrew, 16.
Little often wields the camera throughout the family’s ordeal, getting them to open up in ways they wouldn’t otherwise. The result is compelling and harrowing — made all the more so since we know how the story ends.
Maria passed away at home in April and Little has been doing her best to be a role model for her younger siblings while working on her writing and music in her Santa Cruz home. The Times got on the phone with her recently to talk about her experience filming the show and what her life is like now that her mother is gone.
Q: Why did you and your family decide to be involved with “Time of Death”? Was the decision a difficult one?
A: The most influential thing that helped us decide to do this was that when I had the camera in my hands and was talking to my mom, I saw her open up in ways I had never seen before. It kind of gave her permission to talk about things openly and honestly for the first time, and same for my brother and sister. It had such a positive effect, plus the positive intention of wanting to help other people, and be the example that we never had. It was kind of a natural and easy thing to move forward with.
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Q: Once the process began did you feel like you had to filter yourself around the camera?
A: I’m not a person with much filter in any area of my life. I’m not even conscious of those things. I think that if it’s in real life then that’s God’s plan and there’s nothing wrong in God’s world, so there’s nothing that should be hidden or filtered.
Q: What do you hope to see happen as a result of this show, and of sharing your experience?
A: I hope that it opens up the dialogue about death and grief and all of that. I talk about this in the show, but we’re more scared of what we don’t know — the boogie man in the dark. When the lights are on we get it. And I think if the lights were on, on a subject matter like death we wouldn’t be so scared, and we wouldn’t have to face it alone, instead there would be some community around it. On a personal level, I hope this serves to remind people that this is raw, this is real, this is unscripted, this is documenting. This is taking a picture — this is really a clear snapshot. I think that’s what documentaries should do — just document. They shouldn’t influence.
Q: How were the cameras handled throughout the experience?
A: I carried it a lot. My mom and brother and sister talked more openly if it was me as opposed to the producer working with us. So I was doing a lot. It was there unless someone said, "No, not now." But there wasn’t a whole lot of stuff going on that you were like, "Oh, hold on, not this subject matter." You’re talking about death, there’s nothing polite about anything else.
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Q: How often was your family being documented?
A: It really depended on what my mom was going through. She was doing a bunch of rounds of chemo and then there were scheduled CAT scan results and then a court hearing. If the calendar looked like that then maybe they would come up for a week and a half, but more often they just popped into town for three or four days. It was strange, it never was invasive, it never was surprising and we never felt abandoned after. Maybe I was too distracted by grief to pay attention to any of that. It was very fluid. Alexandra, our producer, was incredible. She had a really keen ability to read people, not just on camera, but in a room. She could take the temperature — if I was feeling uncomfortable she would say, "Little, do you want to slow down? Do you want us to go?" My mom was like, "No, you should stay," more than anything else.