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Embracing the taboos of ageing and death with Sheila Hill / 2 December 2015

black and white photo of the face of actor Tim Barlow, taken side-on

Portrait of Tim Barlow by Hugo Glendinning

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Sheila Hill’s Him was a favourite in the Unlimited showcase at Summerhall in Edinburgh earlier this year. Aside from the quality of the work as a piece of art, the content seemed relevant to me, personally, partly because the panoply of impairment issues I deal with on a daily basis are steadily presenting new challenges as time goes by.  

Choreographed into short sections ‘Him’ is a portrait of actor Tim Barlow meditating on life in older age.  The short film combines the warmth and engagement of theatre with the fineness and subtlety of the visual arts.

It cuts against the grain of cultural preconceptions about ageing, presenting Barlow’s take on things in a natural and seamless series of head-shots. By observing the face from the perspective of a landscape, ‘Him’ seems to transcend age.

I’d been looking forward to seeing Hill’s follow-up film with Hugo Glendinning on camera. Glendinning’s images of disability theatre and dance will surely be the most enduring photographic record of the movement over the last 20 years or so, given their quality and dynamism.

Shown during a panel discussion on Men and Ageing in the Southbank Centre’s Being A Man Festival, Him II takes some of the conventions in the first piece and extends the themes. As contemplation on ageing and death the film is a reassuring piece of work: a reminder that you get out of life what you put into it.

The piece strikes a series of dissonant tones, contrasting images of Barlow dancing to Glenn Miller’s ‘In The Mood’ with reflections on parental relationships and his first major encounter with death at the age of five.

Do any of us ever really grow up? Or decide who we want to be when we grow up? Him II caused me to reflect on what I’d like to do with the time spent in the country where Older people, live.

When I was younger I always imagined that it would be unlikely I’d reach a retirement age given the fragility of the circumstances I found myself in. And yet now I’m well into my 50s it seems sensible to plan for what I could be doing, given the likelihood of reaching my 70s.

Themes from the first film are taken further philosophically forcing the viewer to engage with silence through a series of frames in which we watch Barlow, watching himself, in the moment. Counter-intuitive, Him II turns the convention of film as escapism on its head and – for a short while at least – asks the viewer to contemplate the here and now.

But more than anything I loved the idea of being a ‘happy dancer’ to coin the term of an elderly member of the panel at the Southbank Centre who talked about dancing with Amici and Entelechy Dance companies.

A warm slice of Barlow’s personality shines through in the dance scenes. I think I know what I want to do when I grow up, now.