Over the Hill and Into the Movies

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Old People Making Films
10 Apr 2008
Arts & Media


Filmmaking is no big deal in our generation. Pensioners learn how to make movies in community centers. There are high schools where the art of communication skills are taught. Everyone with a digital movie camera can produce a film for a birthday party, an anniversary or a memorial service.

But frail elderly people making films in a nursing ward ??—that sounds like fiction. Nevertheless for the last eight years Miri Boker, an enterprising occupational therapist who also learned filming, has been producing movies with the patients in the chronic ward at Neve Horim in Jerusalem. Miri sees this activity as a therapeutic venture; the product (a completed film written and produced by the residents) is not the most important thing—“it’s the process that counts.”

However the seven films that have already been produced in this ward, as well as 23 other films that Miri has supervised in nursing homes all over Israel, are entertaining, enlightening and heartwarming in their own right. Both the staff who are heavily involved in the production, as well as the family and friends who are invited to see the films are most impressed.

The procedure to produce a film usually takes months. The residents who are interested meet to plan out the various aspects of film making. The first step, according to Miri, is choosing a story, a plot and then writing the script together. For instance the first film ever produced involved someone who had lost the picture of her beloved husband. Instead of turning to the staff of the ward, she asked other inmates to help her find it. Along the way the actors/patients find love, friendship and other lost items.

There are often arguments about the theme of the film and how it should be presented. The members of the group all express their views, sometimes in very strong terms. In the end, however, they have to reach a decision, and this process is already an example of how the project is empowering. “Very few matters in an institution for chronic patients are left to their decision,” says Miri. Here they have the opportunity to determine something substantial and important.

Next Miri or another member of the staff (usually another O.T. or a social worker) writes the story as a play. She presents the finished product and again after much discussion a final version is reached by common consent. “The second step involves auditions for the various parts,” says the organizer. Once again it is the elderly who decide who gets which part. Once again there is potential for being hurt or resentful, but in the final analysis the group decides.

Rehearsals can take many weeks. Sometimes an “actor” gets sick or even dies and has to be replaced. That is always a difficult moment. The staff have to cooperate, and sometimes are even “roped in” to take a part. “Actually, the whole Home was involved in the excitement,” says Ronit, a worker at Ganei Ye-elim in Beer Sheva. There the patients in the chronic ward produced a film called “Chag Sameach” and it involved the question of where it’s better spend the holidays—at the children’s home or in the Home. They weighed the fact that at their offspring’s home there’s often a lot of noise and they feel that they’re intruding; but in the ward the atmosphere isn’t holiday-like. “We don’t push a particular view,” says Ronit. “We let the story unfold and everyone can learn from the film what they think suits them. It shows them that they have choices.”

Once rehearsals have gotten the performance down pat, the big day (or days) of actual filming arrives. A professional photographer is on hand from 9:00 A.M. in the morning until 7:00 P.M. at night. The filming is done as a marathon for three or four consecutive days. Yet Miri points out the frail elderly are often up to the challenge and long hours more than the overworked staff who have to adjust to three days of tumult and upset schedules. “It’s like a happening; it’s exciting; everyone feels the electricity in the air,” says Ronit. Editing is also performed by a professional, and then the finished product is shown, first to the participants, and then to the staff, friends and relatives of the whole institution.

“This is always a very big event,” says Miri. The elderly performers’ self image is magnified, their families look at them in a new light, and the medical staff claim that the experience has real therapeutic value. “I didn’t believe that I could do it,” said one matron of 80 whom despite the fact that she is wheelchair bound, was one of the main actresses in a play about loneliness.

“The movie fights our battle,” said another participant who took part in a rather controversial film on the “Bad Caretaker”. “We didn’t mean a “metapel” who hits people or is cruel to them; but we showed up those who take a long time in answering our call or who act callously to our needs.” Miri thought it was very brave of them to choose this subject. Individually they would have been afraid to bring it up, but they found that “in numbers there is strength”, and they backed each other up on what is a very pertinent subject to patients in a nursing home.

With the help of ESHEL, the branch of the Joint Distribution Committee which deals with services for the elderly, the movie making project has spread throughout the land. Miri is kept busy running from project to project in Dimona, Tel Aviv, Beer Sheva and elsewhere. The idea has been taken up by Sheltered Housing Homes and Day Care Centers where the elderly are more independent. The subjects they have chosen for their movies indicate the different stage of their lives: Coping with Widowhood, Intergenerational Relationships; Romance in Old Age, etc. In one lovely story a man who always dreamt of being a writer but never revealed his talents to anyone, takes over the program at a senior citizen club when the leader is sick. He tells a story that he himself wrote. More and more people wander into the room to listen and stay fascinated. In the end he becomes a professional story teller and the group members encourage him to develop his skill.

A number of the movies that have been produced are now used as educational tools in community centers, staff training workshops, support groups for family members and even in schools. The patients in Beit Shirley in Dimona produced a film on “Will He Visit Today or Won’t He.” It shows a lobby full of old people, many in wheelchairs, sitting around, waiting to see who will visit their aged parents during visiting hours. One old man’s son never comes but the father still sits waiting. One of the old guys asks, “Why don’t you call him and tell him to come?” Miri thought that was a legitimate question, but as in so many instances, she learned much more than she taught. In the discussion leading up to this scene, one of the women insisted, “No, don’t you understand; it’s not the same if he comes because his father asks him. He has to want to come on his own accord.” The others accepted her view, and this exchange is in the film.

“The hardest thing in a nursing home is fighting apathy,” says Miri Boker. When we include someone who’s not involved, who claims she or he doesn’t have any talent, or worse still, doesn’t have the motivation to join in making a film, and then over time get them to join, and they develop, and gradually show an interest, and also begin to open up like a flower in the spring sunshine,– that’s the best part of this job”. The film maker/ therapist continues, “It’s wonderful to see the interaction, the friendships that are formed, the creativity that comes to the fore at the age of 85 or 90 and the way they learn to express what they really feel.” Both producers and participants share in a comment heard in Neve Horim, “This is one of the best periods in my life.”

The article is authored by Leah Abramowitz, a geriatric social worker who is the coordinator of the Geriatric Institute of Shaare Zedek Hospital and Melabev. She is a veteran freelance writer and active in community programs. The movie “Will He Come or Won’t He?”, as well as the 3 minute short film about the project are produced by JDC-Eshel Communications – Audio Visual Center

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.