Only Old in Years

in 54th International Film Festival for Short and Documentary Films, Krakow

by István Szathmáry

One would think the fact that in our developed, Western societies, people live to an increasingly old age and stay — or at least would like to stay — healthy and active longer and longer, provides a whole new range of age-related topics for the filmmaker. However, even with an increasing number of aged superheroes and elderly lovers, the mainstream constantly tries to stay on the safe side rarely going beyond bittersweet while definitely preferring more or less sophisticated comedy.

One of the most important conclusions one could draw after having watched the twenty films of this year’s competition is that at least documentary directors can allow themselves to transcend the sickly-sweet depiction of old age and provide a more subtle analysis of the topic. It was certainly a delight to see how many documentaries focused on the process of ageing, trying to answer the question about what one can do once old age kicks in; especially now that Hungary witnesses the success of Stream of Love (Szerelempatak), a surprising praise of love and sexuality by villagers from rural Transylvania — well past their prime.

It might be interesting to note that it was not necessarily the films openly and/or entirely devoted to the topic of ageing that proved to be the most successful in their analysis. In fact, it was Holanda del Sol, seemingly the most obvious example of this trend, which paradoxically seemed to lack the drama and failed to provide any narrative or concept other than picturing the life of the retired Dutch in seaside Spain. Another documentary aiming perhaps higher than it reached was the Michael Moore-ishly sensationalist Two Raging Grannies (Opprørske oldemødre), the story of two old ladies investigating economic mysteries. While apparently trying to show the coolness of the pictured duet, the effect is all too often forced and syrupy, and the noble quest against expansion and consumption leaves an unpleasantly Disneyish aftertaste. In contrast, the French country life of Where Time Stops (Endzeiten) with its forever young hippies and punks looks much better in comparison.

Going back to nature is also an important motif in Garden Lovers (Eedenistä pohjoiseen), where part of the characters looking for perfection, peace and sense in gardening are indeed elderly couples trying to cope with the reality of their approaching death. Another tragically dark side of old age is revealed in the scenes of The Square (A tér) when the aged director confesses her own shortcomings to the audience, loafing around in her flat like any old lady, no longer taking part in but merely observing the events of the outside world.

Still, the most interesting aspects of ageing in this year’s competition might be those shown not from the elderly people’s point of view, but from their daughters’. Though the history of A Separation (Att skiljas) is as banal and tragic as any divorce can be, the focus is more on the newly gained independence rather than the practicalities of the sharing of assets. Even if some shyness — possibly caused by personal involvement — makes it a rare treat, we can find the drama we have been looking for in mainstream cinema; a particularly good example is the emotional argument between the director and her mother in the scene where she finds out that the latter threw her wedding veil away. Compared to the banalities of everyday family life Once My Mother shows a much different mother figure and a much more painful struggle for understanding the person as a whole that might only be done by retracing her life’s story.

Watching these sometimes very intimate confessions, the audience is made to face its own naïve, sometimes literally childish attitude towards the elderly. If we can draw another conclusion from this year’s selection, it is that direct portrayal tells us much less about ageing than a careful investigation where the complexity of an issue is reflected only indirectly, leaving however some food for thought.

Edited by Steven Yates