Luminate, Scotland’s creative ageing festival ran for its second year this October. Events took place in almost every region, even the Outer Hebrides, and included exhibitions, films, and live performances (music, poetry, dance and theatre). There were also discussions, debates, workshops (storytelling, writing, crafts, dancing, reading groups), as well as outreach events in different communities. Rina was unable to accept an invitation to be part of a panel and discussion on ageing and film so I went instead.
The event was called ‘Close Encounters of the Third Age: Representing an Ageing Society in the Cinema’ and took place in the Filmhouse Cinema, Edinburgh – home to the world’s oldest continually running film festival.
The event listing in the Festival programme read as follows:
British Film Institute statistics indicate that the power of older audiences is increasing. Cinema audiences are seeing more substantial roles for older artists, from Judi Dench as a widowed housewife seeking fulfilment in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to Emmanuelle Riva’s Oscar-nominated performance in Amour. But how accurately do these roles represent older people today? What messages do these films give about ageing? And do younger audiences relate to films with characters that might actually have a life beyond 60? Join in this lively discussion with industry professionals and moviegoers of all ages.
Other panel members were:
Ron Donachie (Actor) joined the Scottish left-wing agitprop 7/84 Theatre Company after graduating from university in the late 70s and has had a long and varied career in theatre, TV and film ever since.
Eva Flicker (Professor of Sociology University of Vienna). Her fields of research are sociology of film, media and communication; visual sociology; sociology of organisations; team and group dynamics and Gender Studies. She has published on many sociological aspects in feature film and one of her projects analyses the representation of age, ageing and older people in media.
Alison Strauss (Programmer at the Hippodrome Cinema in Falkirk – the oldest purpose built cinema in Scotland, Arts Development Officer – Film and Media – at Falkirk Community Trust and Director of the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema). Trained as a film archivist and worked with the BFI’s National Archive collection for 7 years before moving to Scotland.
Joyce McMillan, Theatre critic and columnist for the Scotsman, chaired the event.
Panelists were asked to select a short clip from a film that illustrated points in their presentation and to bring their area of expertise to the discussion.
Ron Donachie, speaking as an actor in his late 50s, said that he had always looked older than he was and ‘playing older’ came to fruition in the last ten years. For older male actors there would always be parts as politicians, police, military, caretakers etc – unlike for women actors. He commented on Judy Dench being killed off in the Bond franchise. He added that he had done a lot more dying recently – three times in the last year. He said that in speaking about the representation of older people in film, we had to make a distinction between mainstream and art – and that representation was much better in art (foreign) films. Mainstream film is seen as an escapist medium and that ‘money isn’t just the bottom line, it’s every line’. He spoke of the way young people are portrayed in much mainstream cinema, and that he hoped that the representation of all sections of society improved.
Ron chose a clip from an episode in Waterloo Road in which he played a terminally ill character who chooses assisted suicide.
Eva Flicker has done research about the representation of age and ageing in media content since 2000 – analysing print, radio, film, TV and internet. From a quantitative perspective age and the elderly are underrepresented e.g. 15-20% of the population studied are over 65 while only 5-10% of that group are represented in characters in the media. But she added that HOW age and the elderly are represented is more relevant than numbers alone. She selected 3 themes emerging from her work:
1. Older women characters suffer the double discrimination of ageism and sexism. There are fewer roles for older actresses and where they exist they are stereotypical. Older women have to hide markers of aging like wrinkles, and grey hair. They have to be skinny, sporty and have sex appeal forever.
2. Visual representation of old people in film has mainly been in comedies and there are taboos on the subjects of pain, dying and death. Sexuality, if represented, is heterosexual.
3. There might be a slow shift to some films that break these boundaries e.g. two Austrian films Coming of Age (2011) and Amour (2012). These films put death and dying at the centre, within love stories. In years to come it will become clear if such films are a ‘blip’ in the old paradigm of youthism or a new kind of filmmaking.
Eva chose a clip from Coming of Age. Rosa and Bruno fall in love despite one having terminal cancer and the other being in a 50-year-old marriage. They need to deal with accusation, aggression and normative restrictions. The film is responsible in its representation of ageing and older people and takes risks in showing humour, affection, and taboo subject in one story.
Alison Straus discussed (mainstream) industry response to the fact that younger film audiences are declining and older audiences increasing. It has been estimated that around a third of forthcoming Hollywood films are made with an eye on the older audience. Studios’ response is to cast older and familiar actors, represent romance between older people, and films built around aging stars in genre films like Red, Space Cowboys, and Stand up Guys. Cinemas have responded by having off peak screenings and an environment appealing to older audiences – e.g. cups of tea, senior citizen clubs.
To illustrate some of the above points Alison chose a clip from Stand Up Guys (2013) about 3 ageing robbers starring vintage Hollywood stars – Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin. (It was described as ‘sentimental yet sprightly’ and ‘needs to be indulged’ by Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian.)
I was asked to present my views as a “knowledgeable audience, member of a older women in film group, and perhaps as one of the ‘target audience’ for some of the films that are currently being produced.” The organisers added that they would be interested in my views on stereotyping, inspiring proactive critical discussion, and on issues of gender. I chose a clip from Strangers in Good Company. My presentation (see below) included a critique of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Ironically Luminate had chosen TBEMH as one of their main films for the festival.
The discussion was lively but did not come up with any easy solutions to the issues and problems identified. I was very excited by the ideas behind the Luminate Festival, even if I was a bit disappointed that TBEMH was one of the main films chosen to show. Then I had to remind myself that some women in our film group liked the film in spite of its shortcomings. The organisers were receptive and clearly interested in Rina’s Blog and the older women film group and wanted us to participate next year. Personally I would love to go and spend a bit more time at the festival – I had to return soon after the event – and hope that maybe next year some of us might go as a group.
Only 3 people in the audience had seen Strangers in Good Company but a number were planning to see it now and some to read Mary Meigs’ book on the making of the film.
Jane’s Luminate Presentation
There may be a growing body of academic work about the meaning and value of this new genre but relatively little is known about how old women feel, and what they think about key films. An exception is Rina Rosselson’s blog on ageing, ageism and feature films (https://oldwomaninfeaturefilms.wordpress.com/)
Do films like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (TBEMH) represent a challenge to stereotypes about ageing or do they simply replace old ones with new ones? For example:
1. Growing old gracefully is replaced with staying young through a continuous cycle of reinvention and self-development. (The latter dovetails nicely with current pervasive individualism, victim blaming and policies that cut back on social and health care.)
2. The asexual old woman has been replaced by the woman who is still ‘doing it’ or obsessively ‘up for it’. There do exist films where old women ‘do it’ but as a believable and natural part of the narrative – e.g. Fear Eats the Soul.
There is an imperative for older people to grow older and younger at the same time. In films, if old people are in a choir, there is likely to be at least one number where they are poured into lycra jumpsuits singing songs with titles such as ‘Let’s talk about sex’ and of course they will dance in the imagined style of their grandchildren.
If you believe that films are an important and persuasive medium for influencing how we see ourselves and how others, particularly young people, see us –
Do such stereotypes make things easier or harder for old women? If you like films that make you think, and increase your awareness – are these satisfying? I can hear the comments of women friends ‘but you’re taking this too seriously’ ‘It’s a feel good film’ ‘lighten up’ ‘you’ve ruined the film for me’ or ‘you’ve lost your sense of humour’ (so reminiscent of responses to feminists in the 70s). Films are important cultural markers and while the fact there are more films about older women played by actors of a similar age is a welcome development it isn’t reason to abandon all critical thinking.
Is in your face realism about the marginalisation, risks and ridicule people might experience in old age the only alternative to fairy-tale confections like TBEMH?
I’ve selected a clip from a film that I think represents something in between.
Strangers in Good Company, also known as in The Company Of Strangers, is a Canadian film about a group of women who are stranded in a remote area when their bus breaks down. It’s called a semi documentary in that the women ‘played’ themselves. Hundreds of women were auditioned and screen tested on their ability to talk freely about themselves in scripted situations. Seven women were aged between 65 and 88 and the eighth, the driver, was in her late 20s. They were diverse in appearance, background, ethnicity, sexual orientation, spirituality and as independent spirits. The pace is slow, there is no plot to speak of, the narrative is non linear. We learn about the women from conversations they have with each other in twos, and from the activities they undertake in adapting to their environment.
They talk about marriage, work, family, falling in love, illness, pain, war and death. All huge subjects but the tone is never preachy. Maybe the word ‘chatting’ better describes how the women interact and reveal themselves to each other and to us. The resourcefulness of the women seems neither heavy handed nor their practices ‘quaint’, but does illustrate that the skills acquired over a long life can often trump those of younger people.
In the first scene Constance, the oldest and the one who is most troubled and sad about her lot generally is standing by the lake she knew in childhood straining but being unable to hear the birdsong all around her – nevertheless at peace. In the second scene some of the women are gathered on the porch calling into the echoing landscape – ‘we’re alive’.
As one woman said later about he film, ‘nothing happens’. Another responded ‘we are what happens…the film is about 7 old women happening’. I think it is this dynamic in the film that makes it such a powerful challenge to ageism. Had the film been a documentary these women would probably have appeared isolated each of them in their own life. In the manipulated setup of a semi documentary they not only developed friendships but in all their talking and remembering they show their ability to alter their relationships to their past, present and futures. The only young person in the film, the driver, has a fall and is significantly mobility challenged. With this device any comparison between youth and age is absent and consequently the film expresses a hope precluded by ageism.
TBEMH puts a group of older people in a completely new environment. But the characters are undeveloped, unbelievable and largely uninteresting. Any empowerment and growth acquired only seems possible on the backs of those less powerful. I don’t know why these grate quite so much, but the Tom Wilkinson character coming upon and then teaching Indian kids how to play cricket and Judy Dench’s character getting a job in a call centre on the strength of her explaining the British technique for dunking a biscuit in tea…but they do.
So in conclusion, as a member of the target audience for this new genre, I’d say to the film industry ‘please don’t make films FOR old women, instead make good films IN which old women are represented as credible characters. As the women in the film clip shouted into the landscape, ‘we’re here’ and ‘we’re alive’.
In preparing this talk I drew on the discussions from the current old women’s film group as well as the archived writings of the 2007 group. I also found the following books useful.
Gravagne, P. 2013, The Becoming of Age: Cinematic Visions of Mind, Body and Identity in Later Life, McFarland & Co, North Carolina and London.
Meigs, M, 1994, In the Company of Strangers, Talon Books, Canada.