The narrative film Boyhood has provoked significant interest for following the growth of the same actor as he ages in real time. While the approach is unique in feature films, this method is an everyday reality for a documentary filmmaker - as is demonstrated by this season of Global Voices.
Richard Linklater’s new film Boyhood has provoked a lot of interest in its intriguing premise and the background of its production: follow the growth of a character over twelve years, not with different actors, but with the same person as he ages in real time.
This is the first time that a narrative film has had the patience to tackle the kind of project well-known in the documentary world. Most notably, Michael Apted’s Up series follows the same people over the course of a lifetime, beginning with a group of 7-year-old British schoolchildren in 1964 and revisiting them every seven years; the most recent installment explores their lives at the age of 56. Filming over a span of years gives audiences a true sense of the passing of time.
Like these films, three documentaries in this summer’s Global Voices series approach the subject of growth and aging, despite vastly different cultural contexts. Each one explores a significant period in a person’s life, from young adulthood to middle age to the final years. You can see a lifetime in My So-Called Enemy, My Perestroika (both available to watch online), and Here Comes Uncle Joe (airing on the WORLD Channel August 31, 2014).
My So-Called Enemy
Like Apted’s Up, Lisa Gossels’s very timely documentary starts with a group of girls and follows them over the course of seven years, from adolescence to adulthood. The circumstances bringing them together are particularly charged; in 2002, the girls participate in a special New Jersey summer camp called Building Bridges for Peace, which unites Israeli and Palestinian teenage girls who would not otherwise meet, let alone discuss their deeply-felt ideas about politics and history. As the woman who runs the program reminds them, the goal is not for the girls to agree with each other; in some cases, that may be impossible. But the summer camp— with its mundane trips to Walmart and film screening of Miss Congeniality— allows them to live together in ordinary circumstances, and to be honest and upfront with each other in a way that seems increasingly difficult for adults.
Over the next seven years, the film follows the girls as they face the question of where they stand in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Gal (who is Israeli) and Rawan (who is Palestinian) begin a friendship which faces huge hurdles over the years — including Gal’s enlistment in the Israeli military service, and Rawan’s objection to daily border patrols and barriers. The film shows how their small points of contact, like text messages during the escalation of the conflict, enable this friendship to evolve and endure.
Robin Hessman’s film has even closer parallels to Apted’s Up, and begins by juxtaposing news footage of happy Soviet children in the 1970s with contemporary interviews of the adult 30- and 40-somethings looking back at their lives. Hessman, who lived in Russia in the 1990s, identifies with this generation: “They had normal Soviet childhoods behind the Iron Curtain—never dreaming that anything would ever be different in their society… And then, they graduated just as the USSR collapsed—having to figure out a new life, where there were no models to follow.” [via IndieWire]
By focusing on five classmates from the same school, My Perestroika shares the same poignant quality of Apted’s series; it emphasizes the disparity between lives that started at a common point. As each person takes stock of his or her life at middle age, there are feelings of nostalgia and pride as well as regret. Olga, the school beauty, wonders how she fell beneath the middle class despite her planned future with a wealthy husband; Andrei, who once thought joining the Communist Party would secure his future, now presides over a successful business importing French men’s shirts. And for the couple Borya and Lyuba, there’s the sense that their generation is ready to pass the torch. As Borya says while watching his son, “With the internet, it’s impossible to have a monopoly on information. And information means a lot. They’re all young. Potential hackers. They can get around any firewall. . . . I’m from a different generation. I don’t know how. But they do. They’ll be able to get around anything.”
Here Comes Uncle Joe
Sinae Ha and Wooyoung Choi’s film focuses on a very different community, seemingly forgotten by the modern world. The fifteen villages in Andong, South Korea are inhabited exclusively by the elderly, with a friendly delivery man called Uncle Joe as their only visitor. Uncle Joe sells seafood, produce, and clothing, but he also performs basic household chores and provides companionship to the 800 villagers whose children have moved to the cities and might visit once a year. The story of an older generation abandoned by the younger one has been the focus of other popular South Korean works in recent years. The 2008 independent film Old Partner, a documentary about an 80-year-old farmer faced with losing his 40-year-old ox, broke Korean box office records. Journalist Park Soo-Mee attributed its success to “a message of hope posed by the farmer and his wife despite the hardship of rural life.” Meanwhile, for further reading: Kyung-Sook Shin’s best-selling novel Please Look After Mom dramatizes a family’s feelings of guilt and remorse when their elderly mother from the countryside disappears during a trip to the city.
What distinguishes Here Comes Uncle Joe from these other works is the main protagonist, who is not a part of the older generation but feels a deeper sense of connection to them than he does with his own family. As his wife says, “He is popular in the countryside, but not good to me.” With the elderly villagers, Uncle Joe doesn’t have to discuss his past or future; he lives in a manageable present where preparing lunch or removing a wasp nest is the most important task of the day, and where he is appreciated as one of them. Here Comes Uncle Joe will air on the WORLD Channel beginning August 31. If you’ve missed any of the Global Voices films broadcasting this summer on the WORLD Channel, you still have a limited chance to catch some of them online!
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