REVIEW: “A Reminder That People Need People” – ‘Kingdom of Us’ (2017)

In 2007, Paul Shanks committed suicide leaving behind wife Vikie, six daughters and a son. Kingdom Of Us is an extraordinarily personal insight into the grieving process of this family and a reflection of a mother’s strength in the face of tragedy.

Ten years on from Paul Shanks’ death, Lucy Cohen’s 2017 documentary Kingdom Of Us reflects upon what we understand of the individuality and complexity of grief. The focus remains on how people come to terms with death at different speeds, but that feeling of loss may never truly dissipate. The film is an extraordinary insight into a family coming to terms with suicide, a topic that, understandably, opens up difficult but necessary conversations.

Dealing with the subject matter of suicide, Cohen treads appropriately and carefully in this documentary to assemble a narrative that does not sensationalise or misinterpret the family’s experience. Many of the individuals featured in the film are young, but a trusting relationship seems to have been established between participants and documentation: one of the Shank’s daughters, Pippa, looks off camera to Cohen asking: “the sugarcoated answer or the brutally honest answer?” Without hesitation Cohen responds: “the brutally honest.” It is clear Cohen aimed to achieve this sensitive yet real account of tragedy that is painfully honest in its realisation. Providing these family members with the time and space to articulate their own perspective on what happened.

Cohen relies on home-footage to build a portrait of the Shank family’s childhood. Piecing these nostalgic visuals with to-camera interviews that inform the pace of Kingdom Of Us. Their faces are not visible as they reflect on the moment their mother sat them down and told them that their father had died. Images of light dance across the screen as their voices merge and overlap. Talking over one another, they recount the moment police and helicopters arrived at the scene. There are clear flashes of pain that linger but Cohen welcomes moments of laughter and loving humour that offer a relief from the painful memory. Explaining through reflections that are punctuated by home videos, the memory of Paul differs between family members. These home videos were mainly shot by Paul himself, capturing a fun-loving father who was energetic and entertaining to his children. However, watching the footage back, there is a complicated picture that shows the underlying darkness Paul was battling.

Pippa-Pieta Shanks look out of the window of her family home
Pippa-Pieta Shanks in Kingdom of Us (2019)

A number of the Shank children are on the autism spectrum, but there is a pressing understanding that lingers with their discussion towards this topic. They talk amongst themselves about how and when it is appropriate to discuss mental health. Cohen allows the family to open up about their experience with autism diagnosis, their mum being such a key figure of support in their lives: “Mum is this a good party? I can’t tell if people are having fun or not.” Cohen’s documentary is personal without being intrusive, she allows the Shank’s children to really lead the direction of the film with their individual comments driving the narrative. Osborn, the only male sibling, is often the one that delivers some weather philosophical lines, existential in the discussion of death: “People don’t like thing about death, and that’s probably why people end up doing things they don’t want to do, because they think that they’ll live forever and they push death aside.” Osborn’s sentiment is profound from a young man who has already had to deal with so much in his youth, yet he is smiling and continues to get on with life with support.

Above all, the one element that seems to stand out is the sheer perseverance and glue of the family: Vikie Shanks. The documentary does not entirely focus on Vikie, she is often a caring but concerned voice that enters and exits the shot. Yet, Kingdom Of Us deserves recognition for capturing the incredible determination of this mother, a woman who is willing to treat her children with respect and be vulnerable with the. Her strength knows no bounds.

The emotionally intense documentary recounts this family processing the tragedy of their father’s suicide ten years ago. The message of Kingdom Of Us is important and Osborn words it perfectly: “people die from not accepting help.” This is one of the biggest takeaways from Kingdom Of Us, a reminder that people need people.