Near-death experience documentary from Manitoba team enters box-office record books

The film 'After Death' by Winnipeg filmmaker Stephen Gray explores the question of what happens when we die. It reached number 3 in the box office and sold over a million tickets. Joanne Roberts has the story.

Is there life after death?

A Winnipeg filmmaker asked survivors of near-death experiences what they think they saw behind the veil in what’s become the world’s top-grossing documentary since 2019.

“After Death” is an exploration of what happens when we die – conveyed by scientists, authors and survivors.

It placed fourth at the box office on its opening weekend last month behind big names like Martin Scorsese and Taylor Swift. It was the all-time 12th highest grossing opening for a doc.

“To see over a million tickets sold is pretty mind-blowing for a documentary,” said executive producer Tyler Friesen, who grew up in Churchill, Man.

The film played at 2,745 screens across North America – an extreme rarity for documentaries. In Winnipeg it was shown at the largest auditorium at Cineplex.

“It’s a pretty humbling experience when you see people affected and walking out of the theatre and you hear them questioning, ‘how am I going to live my life after this?’” said Friesen. “Seeing that effect and seeing people asking those important questions to cause us to live different, that’s really the most inspiring thing being part of a film like this.”

Winnipeg writer and director Stephen Gray says it was “really cool” for a truly Winnipeg film to achieve the success at the box office.

“Most times a lot of productions are happening with a director that comes from, say Los Angeles or Toronto or some other place, and then they’re coming in and filming parts here in Winnipeg.

“This film was done by a director from Winnipeg as well an executive producing team from Manitoba so I think it’s something to be proud of.”

Most of the narrative scenes were filmed in Rosarito, Mexico, with a production team that worked on big blockbusters like “Titanic” and “Independence Day.”

Loss of brother-in-law sparks interest

Gray’s seven-year journey working on the feature film, which started as a short documentary, began after his brother-in-law passed away in 2012.

“He was killed in a car wreck at 36 years old, so that’s what got me interested in near-death experiences,” the Winnipeg director said.

“All this time I kind of spent thinking about him.”

Gray also spent the time exploring his own beliefs about death – what it means and what comes after.

“I was raised in a faith to believe that there is heaven,” he said. “But actually when my brother-in-law was killed, I wasn’t sure really what I believe anymore. I actually kind of let go of the idea there might be a God or heaven. I wasn’t sure what to make of that.

“So when I came across the stories, people clinically died and had these experiences, it kind of restored my faith. And it’s been seven years working on this film so it’s a long time coming, but throughout that journey I think eventually I became convinced that there is something after.”

Stephen Gray, director and writer of After Death, sits with executive producer Tyler Friesen. (Joanne Roberts, CityNews)

Friesen, who has a background in commercials and photography, became involved with the project after delivering a hard drive to Gray. The two got to speaking and the concept immediately resonated with the Churchill man.

Friesen says he lost nearly a dozen friends to suicide, cancer, car crashes and drowning before he was out of high school.

“It’s one of those topics that I was seeking from a little kid,” Friesen said. “Growing up in Churchill, being from a really small community and seeing friends pass away. It hits small communities like that quite different, so I had those big, big questions and anger with those questions, too. It’s been a lifelong, still seeking it out, but I think we have clearer answers than we’ve ever had yet.

“It’s one of those things to go like I’m not going to think about this or not. And you can avoid it for your whole life or you can face it head on and try to decide ‘am I going to have a belief system around this.’”

A collection of snapshots in Stephen Gray’s in-home studio. (Joanne Roberts, CityNews)

The filmmaking team spoke to many people for the film, including doctors studying near-death experiences, who have seen more than 6,000 cases combined.

“That many people – isn’t that science?” said Friesen. “That’s a science project, right. That was the purpose of it, to see how many overlapping experiences are these people having and what are those experiences and how can they relate to each other. There are too many to deny.

“And it’s not from substances, it’s not from being high. It’s a fascinating, fascinating subject.”

‘Stepped outside of their body and felt ultimate peace’

Gray says part of the appeal of the film is experiencing vicariously what survivors of near-death experiences say comes after death.

“I think a highlight for me was being able to sit across the interview chair and being able to talk to these people,” he said. “I don’t know, there was something special hearing what they experience in that moment when they clinically died.

“What they describe, where they basically could have stepped outside of their body and felt ultimate peace, and it felt better than they’d ever felt in their entire life. Some of them describe that that felt more real than this life here.”

Gray calls it an intense topic filled with hope.

“I think this question of what happens after we die is something that a lot of us think about, especially after COVID,” he said. “Around the world, I think this is the mindset of so many people. There’s a lot of fear and anxiety about death. I was thinking this is probably top of mind for a lot of people just as it was for me after losing my brother-in-law.”

The Winnipeg filmmaker hopes “After Death” becomes a source of hope for audiences, whether they’re grieving or looking for a sense of purpose.

While not in theatres in Winnipeg anymore, anyone wishing for early access to watch the film can visit this website.

Next up for Gray and Friesen is a feature-length documentary with Amazon Studios based on a story from Winnipeg.

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