Reel Aging: Films for the Generations

A Residency on Aging, Documentaries, and Audience Engagement
(The second of three posts on our March adventures)

In the 2+ years since The Graying of AIDS received support from the Open Society Foundations to create our multiplatform outreach and education campaign, we have met a remarkable array of people from across disciplines who are concerned about issues related to aging and/or HIV/AIDS. Our acceptance into the transformative Reel Aging: Films for the Generations residency – convened from March 22 – 27, 2012 in Warrenton, VA, and Washington, DC, by Working Films with support from the the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation – connected us with a whole new group of inspired and inspiring colleagues.

For four jam-packed days, Graying joined ten other aging-focused documentary projects, the Working Films team, and advisors and guest presenters Donna Phillips Mason, Anne Basting, Barbara Abrash, and David Weigelt to brainstorm, share ideas, and prepare for Day 5, a convening with activists, NGOs, funders, government agencies, and other policy makers working on the ground to support older adults and those that care for and work with them.

The overall goal? To begin to explore how we might work together to ensure that our media projects serve as useful tools for the critical work being done around aging-related concerns. Working Films has already offered up both an excellent overview of the residency and one organizer’s personal take on the experience; we’re going to take a few minutes here to follow her lead and share some of our own reflections.

Perhaps the most meaningful take-away from our time with Reel Aging was also the most obvious: there’s an extensive network of talented, committed, and downright lovely people doing this work in editing rooms, communities, and diverse organizations and institutions around the country, and given the enormity of the challenges we will collectively face as demographics shift to the older end of the spectrum in the years ahead, thank heavens for good people.

The eleven documentary projects varied in a number of ways: team members were directors, producers, editors, photojournalists, organizers, and educators in different stages of our lives and careers; some projects were just getting started, while others were “in the can” and fully entrenched in their outreach/engagement phase; and our storytelling approaches ranged dramatically in style and scale. But we shared a commitment to teasing out the best ways to tell stories that are compelling, honest, and respectful without oversimplifying the issues, and to making sure that all of our hard work ultimately contributes to some sort of meaningful change for older adults and the people who care about them.

During the first four days of the residency, we spent a lot of time together on the startlingly picturesque grounds of the Airlee Center, talking about our projects and ideas for audience engagement but also about other documentary and community work that has moved us, our lives outside of our current projects, and the amazing food served up in the dining room every day. We exchanged honest and constructive feedback on each others’ work and pitches-in-progress, encouraged each other when we got frustrated, and shared ideas, bike rides, and beverages at the nearby pub. It felt, at various times, like an intensive work retreat, a grueling class, and a sometimes awkward / sometimes hilarious / never boring group date. And our thoughtful and supportive guides through all of it – the amazing team from Working Films and our guest presenters – were tremendously generous with their personal insights, life experience, and time as we muddled through the occasional rough patches in our individual journeys.

We were all exhausted and excited when we rolled into the Pew DC Conference Center for the convening on Day 5, but presenting our pitches to the room full of advocates, activists, researchers, agency and organizational representatives, and funders was less intimidating than one might have anticipated because we knew our peers were rooting for us from around the room. Our audience was remarkably attentive, curious, thoughtful, and engaging, and many were enthusiastic about the opportunity to collaborate with the documentarians to build something powerful together.

No matter where we are in our project timelines, we all have a lot to do to expand on the foundations we built together over those five days, take full advantage of the important new connections we’ve forged, and help integrate our documentaries into some of the critical work being done to support older adults and their care providers in communities around the country. While the breadth and depth of the work ahead of us could be daunting, knowing that we’ll be doing it together with this incredible network of people, organizations, and institutions makes it all seem far more doable, more promising, and more fun, and we’re really looking forward to seeing what happens next.

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