A Group Portrait of an Aging Europe By Ingeborg Bratoeva
Mostly young directors participated in the international contest of Cracow Film Festival. Therefore, it was a surprise that a significant number of the European films in the competition had a focus on the process of getting older, being old, and finally passing away. Fiction, documentary and animation from all over Europe illuminated various aspects of old age, making it a dominating topic. Bringing this issue into the spotlight was probably a matter of this year’s festival selection. Nevertheless, it is to be expected that the theme of old age becomes more and more essential for the cinema of our incessantly aging continent. The big group of festival films on this subject simply visualized the anxiety of modern Europe about the final phase of human life.
Aging was represented, according to the different social backgrounds, personal attitudes and individual styles of the directors, in a wide variety of genres. They expanded from the long-term documentary observation The Prayer (Imadsag) by the Hungarian director Sandor Mohi, to the intense British fictional drama My Mother (dir. Elaine Wickham), to the Romanian feuilleton Humoresque (Humoresca) by Diana Deleanu, to the refined Polish animated essays Everything Flows (Wszystko plynie) by Edyta Turczanik, and Refrains (Refreny) by Viola Sowa. However, apart from all the differences, the young directors have worked on their subject with the same basic approach, considering old age exclusively as a period of isolation, detachment and loneliness. Getting older can sharpen family antagonisms, as revealed in Marcin Koszalka’s Till It Hurts (Do bolu), a documentary in reality-show style. Being old can turn into an agony because of political and social injustice, as shown in the reportage-like documentaries This Way Up (Le jardin de jad) by Georgi Lazarevski and A Shell (Rakushka) by Dmitry Lavrinenko. Whatever the nuances, not one of the competition films has depicted old age as a time of insight and wisdom.
What can be the reasons for such a one-sided way of thinking? The films point to the broken personal links, to alienation as a symptom of modernity. Only two of all the movies, Refrains (dir. Viola Sowa) and A Second Sight (dir. Alison McAlpine), were made from a wider perspective, presenting human life beyond individual fate, in its continuity in the generations. Refrains is an animation film composed with perfect balance between an emotional and sophisticated image, and a poignant soundtrack. The film illustrates different stages of a woman’s life in an exceptionally poetic style, presenting three generations of women linked by family bonds — a grandmother, a mother, and a daughter. When the youngest of them reaches the border of maturity, she recollects her childhood memories and a letter left by her grandmother. These memories disclose that the three generations have common experiences, emotions and fates — Viola Sowa depicts human existence as a repeatable combination of destiny, occurrences and sentiments.
The Canadian documentary A Second Sight is also inspired by childhood memories of the director Alison McAlpine, who recalls the incredible stories once told by her great grandmother. A personal and very poetic story about a journey into the magic world of Scotland, this visual essay is also an attempt to record a passing generation of Gaelic storytellers. All the characters in the film are old people, who invent, develop and tell ghost stories. Keepers of an ancient tradition of storytelling, these mediators between the world of the living and the world of the dead, are situated in the otherworldly scenery of the island of Skye, another aspect of reality. Portraying her heroes, the director has stressed their unconventional personalities and the uniqueness of each of them. In addition, Keren Hakak’s Rosenzweig — Born to Dance rounds off the small group of films which accentuate the courage and the ability of old people to save their individuality, despite age and physical vulnerability. This is adocumentary about an 88-year-old Jew, who survived Auschwitz, and who still maintains his old passion for dancing, regardless of his old age.
On the other side of the competition were the works presenting old age as a total mental and psychological loss, as a downfall of spirit, sense and hope. This tendency was well exposed in the films set in nursing homes — My Mother, This Side Up, The End for Beginners. These examples raise the very important issue about changes in human personality, when the individual is cut off from the natural flow of life and isolated in an institution. The British director David Lale tried to expand the problem beyond the dilemmas of old age, offering a comparison between the life in a nursing home and in its neighbouring children’s day care centre. In the documentary The End for Beginners, those who are slowly leaving this life were put on screen side by side with those who are making their first steps. Lale reflected on how people in modern society become “institutionalized” throughout their entire lives — from the very beginning to the end. The toddlers from the day care centre are as helpless as the old inhabitants of the nursing home are, and both groups receive care and attention by paid professionals outside their homes.
In modern Europe, institutions have replaced the family in the most vulnerable situations of life, and human beings have become literally “institutionalized to death”. The winner of the Golden Dragon Award, the Spanish short fiction Lightborne (Alumbramiento) by Eduardo Chapero-Jackson, is a reflection of this situation. The movie has a highly dramatic beginning — a family gathering at the bedside of their dying mother. She is suffering terribly because her painkillers have stopped working, and no one is able to help her This shocking condition is presented in an unpretentious, but meaningful way. Finally, a family member decides to turn down the modern medical methods and to give the old lady the opportunity to depart this life on a natural way. The film gives a very clear message — love and personal commitment are the most important factors to make a helpless person die in peace and dignity. If this idea is promoted and cultivated ever more, it would not be so scary to become old and to die in Europe, either on screen or in reality.