Documenting the Golden Years

by Sophia Harvey

For my documentary production class this semester, our teacher asked us to go see the Oscar Nominated Documentary shorts at IFC. I have not yet seen both programs, but I had mixed feelings about the first set (Kings Point, Inocente, and Mondays at Racine).

They all struck very different chords with me, my favorite of the three being Mondays at Racine. It is a very personal and touching examination of womanhood and identity when dealing with breast cancer. I strongly recommend it.

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But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. Kings Point, a portrait of a senior citizens’ community in Florida, really quite shocked me in a different way. I was taken aback by the director’s portrayal of the older generation. Shots of the people at Kings Point were bleak and colorless with a depressing lack of composition – this came in stark contrast with carefully put together establishing shots. What bothered me more than that, however, was the alienation I felt watching the interviews. Due to the way the film was structured, with very few title cards, our direct information came solely from these talking heads. They were sparse, reserved and tight lipped. Sitting in the audience, I felt as if I were sitting in a hospital waiting room, watching the drama from afar.

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Although I did not feel that Kings Point was successful, it brought to mind a short documentary that was. The Personals, directed by Keiko Ibi, won the Oscar for Best Short Doc in 1999. It is another portrayal of an older community – with a drastically different tone.

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The Personals tracks a Jewish senior citizens’ theater group on the Lower East Side of Manhattan while they write, rehearse and perform a play about dating in your golden years. With a far more focused and even structure, the director follows the lives of the troupe members throughout this experience. What begins as a light hearted and silly piece quickly delves into deeper territory, uncovering the intense emotions felt by the characters on the subject of companionship.

My first reaction to The Personals was one of self-reflection. I was never uncomfortable with the idea of men and women in their 70s and 80s having sex, I had simply not thought about it. I think it is common to become removed from the seniors in our lives. To think of them as “wise” or “grandmotherly” – well, some grandmas still want to get it on, it turns out. I’m selling myself a bit short here; of course I was aware that people do not lose their libidos after 65, but what I am trying to say is that The Personals reveals dating in this age group to be exactly the same as in any other.

I suppose that’s what truly struck me – the universality of the emotions that were uprooted. These men and women were vulnerable, raunchy, and unashamed – for the most part. Two of the most touching confessions come from the most opposite characters. Gloria, the livewire who speaks of many lovers throughout her life with pride and confidence, eventually tells the camera that all she really wants is someone to hold her. In another instance, one of the more reserved players, on the other end of the sexual spectrum, shyly explains to the camera her first experience with intercourse. A self-professed Daddy’s girl, she expresses her horror at the idea that any man who loved her would want to touch her “down there.”

The Personals is a sincere and beautiful exploration of a topic not often discussed. The tone of the film and the understanding of its characters that it demands come from the director. It is clear that Ibi approached these subjects with utter respect and that she took the time to befriend them, to feel what they were feeling – loneliness, vulgarity, and all. It is a wonderful thing when this is achieved and even better when successfully relayed to the audience.

So, if you’re like me and trying to pack in all the Oscar noms before Sunday, I recommend putting this one on your Netflix queue. After Sunday, take a breath, maybe see the outside world, but then definitely, absolutely, see The Personals.

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