A documentary about exploring the culture and tradition of African-American funerals, featuring famed Harlem funeral director Isaiah Owens of Owens Funeral Home, premiered last week at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). “Homegoings” was part of the MoMA’s International Festival of Nonfiction Film and Media.
Playing to a full house, the screening featured a musical performance by violinist Daniel Roumain and also a question and answer session with the documentary’s director, Chistine Turner, and Owens himself.
The documentary focuses on the life of Owens as he works as one of Harlem’s most sought-after morticians. His family, most notably his mother, who is in her 90s, are also featured in the film along with his many clients. The documentary also takes viewers to Owens’ hometown in South Carolina, where he has another funeral home.
“Upon meeting and spending time with Isaiah Owens, it turned out he was not only a skilled makeup artist, but so much more to the community he serves. He had an undeniable passion for his work, along with charisma and a sense of humor that one doesn’t typically associate with an undertaker,” Turner said.
The film looks at the celebration and culture of African-American funerals, oftentimes called “homegoings.” Families of the deceased in the documentary are featured in the film and also attended the screening.
“As the daughter of a Chinese-American mother and an African-American father, I experienced different funeral customs when both of my grandmothers passed away within two weeks of one another,” Turner said. “Though just a child at the time, I remained curious about the different ways cultures mourned death. Many years later, when I came across an article about a Harlem funeral director who had a reputation for ‘beautifying’ the dead, I was immediately intrigued.”
The screening of “Homegoings” is part of MoMA’s celebration of 25 years of PBS’ award-winning documentary series “POV (Point of View).” “MoMA Selects: POV” was part of the museum’s “Documentary Fortnight 2013” showcase. The six-day event ended on March 4 and featured 22 POV films that have tackled some of society’s most vital political issues.
“As we celebrate our 25th anniversary on PBS, MoMA’s retrospective program allows us to review our history, share insights about documentary craft and culture with the public and celebrate with the indie filmmaking community,” said POV Co-Executive Producer Cynthia Lopez. “The ways in which documentaries have contributed to our culture will be a focus of conversations at the screenings. We hope the public will find that these documentaries inform, entertain and challenge conventional wisdom.”