Review of Irish Film @ DIFF 2019: What Time is Death?

David Deignan approaches the People’s Pyramid.


Paul Duane’s What Time is Death? was funded under the Arts Council Reel Art Scheme, which is designed to provide filmmakers with a unique opportunity to make highly creative, imaginative and experimental documentaries on an artistic. Duane’s film, which certainly delivers in all three areas, focuses on Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, formerly known as British electronic band The KLF, whose last famous act was in 1994, when they burned one million pounds of their earnings in a disused Scottish warehouse – an act which courted much controversy.

Bill and Jimmy have returned to the public eye after 23 years of radio silence but they’re no longer a pop group. They’re now undertakers, bizarrely planning to build the ‘People’s Pyramid’ – constructed out of 34,192 bricks made from the remains of the dead. Duane follows the pair in the weeks and months leading up to the first brick of their pyramid being laid, starting a construction process which they predict could take 200 years to complete.

Charming from the first sequence, the bulk of the film is candidly shot hand-held, by Duane himself, cultivating an intimate feeling which perfectly suits the relaxed nature of its subjects. The filmmaker is a constant throughout the work; he appears on camera once or twice, but we’re always aware of his wry presence just offscreen. The film also makes use of archive footage with pulsating songs from the KLF’s era, as well as discombobulating animated sequences and humorous title card inserts.

It’s a light-hearted film, with a razor-sharp sense of humour which stems from Drummond and Cauty as well as their legion of family and friends. There is a small but tight-knit community that has built up around the pair and their strange project, and Duane acutely captures the feeling of family and absurd humour that are shared amongst these people. For example, at one point Drummond and Cauty host the “Toxteth Day of the Dead” in Toxteth, Liverpool, where people can sign up to have their remains be part of the pyramid. This event involves a crowded reception at the town hall and local residents receive free admission. All other visitors, however, will only be admitted by presenting a supermarket shopping trolley to the bouncer at the door.

This sort of idiosyncratic humour lends Duane’s film a great deal of charm. For his part he’s very careful not to deprecate his subjects – we laugh with them, not at them – and, although the idea of volunteering one’s remains for a pyramid may seem ridiculous to most of us, there is a sincerity and sweetness to the process which really comes across in the film.

What Time is Death? is a thoroughly entertaining, and at times emotional, investigation into an utterly unique passion project. It’s a celebration of life, of artistry and of staying true to oneself as well as a meditation on death. The resulting film is typically eccentric, sharply funny and, quite surprisingly, life-affirming. 

What Time is Death? screened on 26th February 2019 as part of the Dublin International Film Festival (20th February – 3rd March).

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