Montreal filmmaker's documentary explores end of life care with style

"Life is beautiful you know?" narrates Kathleen Mahony, a hairdresser in palliative care wards in a new award-winning short documentary.

"There are extraordinatry moments, you have to appreciate a good life. When you think that you never know when it's going to happen, take advantage while you can."

They're the closing lines from Lorraine Price's documentary "The Hairdresser/La Coiffeuse" that chronicles Kathleen, an 83-year-old woman who styles palliative care patients' hair in their final days.

The documentary is shot in the palliative care unit at the Notre-Dame Hospital in Montreal, and follows Kathleen as she washes and styles Madame Lalonde's hair.

The project is dedicated to Price's grandmother Cara Price, a stylish, outgoing woman who dyed her hair fire engine red, and always matched it with bright red lipstick.

The filmmaker admitted that her grandmother was barely recognizable in her final days as she died in hospice care with short white hair suffering from dementia.

The experience made her think about approaching end-of-life differently.

"All of these things are so common that we don't ever discuss and we end up feeling like we're the first person to ever go through them, and it's just not true," said Price. "If we talked about them, I think we'd feel less alone."

Kathleen narrates her experiences with the people she meets, as images she washes and curls Madame Lalonde's hair, and speaks about those who are ready to accept that their life is ending, as well as those that are angry and unwilling to accept their fate.

"These people have lost a lot," she says. "They've lost weight, the colour of their skin has changed. Once, I used a big mirror, and the person saw themself and yelled, 'Oh my God! I look terrible!' That taught me a lesson."

Needless to say, she doesn't use a mirror anymore. 

The documentary got an honourable mention as Best Canadian Short at Hot Docs 2021, and won second place in the Shorts Audience Choice Awards.

It also screened at Atlanta Film Festival, Brooklyn Film Festival and AFI Docs Film Festival. Price also won a best director award for an episode of TSN's "Engraved On a Nation." 

Price said releasing a short documentary during the COVID-19 pandemic has been an interesting experience with most feedback coming during one-on-one interactions rather than Q&A sessions after screenings.

"Also standing in the back of the room when people are watching your film, so you can feel the room and you know if it's landing or not; I haven't been able to do that," said Price. "I'm missing that, that audience engagement piece."

She said people have responded by reflecting on their own family members who are in or nearing end-of-life which has been very powerful. 

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