Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Sari Gilman--'Kings Point'
Editor's Note: Kings Point is nominated for an IDA Documentary Award in the Short category. The folloiwing is an interview with director/producer Sari Gilman when the film was screened in IDA's DocuWeeks.
Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeks™ Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from August 3 through August 30 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films—the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Sari Gilman, director/producer of Kings Point.
Synopsis: Director Sari Gilman tells the stories of five seniors living in a typical American retirement resort--men and women who came to Florida decades ago with their spouses by their sides and their health intact, and now find themselves grappling with love, loss and the prospect of dying alone. A bittersweet look at our national obsession with self-reliance, Kings Point explores the dynamic tension between living and aging-between our desire for independence and our need for community-and underscores our powerful ambivalence toward growing old.
IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
Sari Gilman: I studied still photography in college and did an oral history project for my senior thesis. This evolved into an interest in filmmaking. After college I worked for a company that created the motion graphics application After Effects. (This was before we were bought by Adobe, and the company was comprised of about 10 friends from college.). After working there for a few years, I moved to San Francisco, and with my understanding of digital video at a very early time in its history, I started freelancing as an assistant editor. Little by little, I gained experience working on documentaries, as an assistant and associate editor, and then I worked my way up to editor. I produced a couple of radio documentaries, but this is my first film as a director.
IDA: What inspired you to make Kings Point?
SG: My grandmother lived in Kings Point for 30 years, and I visited her regularly from the age of 9. I was always fascinated by what looked like summer camp for old people. She and her friends had what was advertised as an "active retirement"-playing cards, going to shows, swimming, playing tennis, etc. But as my grandmother and her friends began to age, I noticed a shift in how they were relating to each other. Increasingly unable to participate in community life, the conversations between friends seemed to be about doctor's appointments more than mahjong. There was almost a Darwinian aspect to social life: You were popular if you were healthy. If you were not, people stopped coming by. I began to hear whispers at the pool: "Oh, yeah, Ida...she's going down."
After two decades of visiting my grandmother and getting to know her friends and neighbors, I wanted to learn more about this uniquely American community. I began interviewing residents and discovered that they felt safe talking to me about issues they didn't feel comfortable bringing up with their neighbors. I was a young person, a filmmaker, in many ways an outsider-yet I had grown up among them and was deeply connected to their culture.
Ten years later, their stories have evolved into a film. It is their lives and their voices that, for me, have come to represent the universal longing for human connection, and the complexities of aging in a society that extols the virtue of self-reliance.
IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
SG: Typical challenges, like raising enough money to shoot, were huge. Also, I work as film editor and am frequently working on other people's films for long stretches of time, which takes up a lot of creative energy.
Frankly, though, I found it kind of depressing to go down there, and I didn't always enjoy the production process.
Another challenge was trying to find the right balance of "light," funny material and the more dark and thoughtful material. There was a lot of "cute old people" material (people dancing and playing cards, etc.), but I found a lot of that material to be cliché, so I wound up cutting a lot of that.
IDA: You dedicated your film to your grandmother, although she doesn't appear in the film. How instrumental was she in helping to get her friends to open up to you? Did she share her friends' observations about aging, love, friendship and family?
SG: I actually did a couple of shoots with my grandmother and toyed with the idea of making the film more personal. But it really was not the right tone.
I didn't film many of my grandmother's friends, and she didn't really talk in a particularly self-reflective way about her experience there (which was another reason I didn't want to film her). But I could just see what was going on even if she didn't talk about it. That was the thing: nobody talked about that stuff to each other. That's why I think they opened up to me so much. They needed to talk about these things but none of their peers were interested in hearing about it.
Staying with my grandmother while I was shooting actually made things difficult in the sense that I always felt bad about not spending more time with her while I was there working. Of course she supported me and what I was doing, but I think she would have liked it if I had been home more.
IDA: Based on seeing the film, I'd guess that you made this film over a period of at least five years--two years pass in the story and at least another three pass in post-production. Did you intend to follow this community over a period of years? At what point did you determine that you had gotten your story and you were ready to start editing?
SG: It actually took me 10 years to complete the film, and no, I had no idea I would be doing it for so long. I didn't stop shooting until I thought I had enough character development to sustain a film. Because I am an editor, I had a pretty good idea of when I did not have enough.
Once I got the financing to complete the film and hire another editor (Jeffrey Friedman), I was actually planning to do one more shoot to wrap things up. But in the editing room, we decided we really didn't need to.
IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?
SG: When I started filming, my approach was a little anthropological in that there was nothing specific that I was looking for; I really just wanted to talk to these people. Even though I could relate to the residents, I was outside of their experience. It was only towards the end of the production process that I began to see myself in all the characters.
Who hasn't been like Gert, calling someone on Saturday night trying to find someone to do something with? Or like Bea, flirting with someone from whom she is never going to get what she wants. And even Frank, who is staying in a relationship that isn't giving him everything he wants, but it's better than nothing.
I began to see the subjects as not just "old" people, but human beings with the same struggles and challenges we all have.
IDA: As you've screened Kings Point—whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms—how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?
SG: People are generally moved. I have found that the older the viewer, the more difficult the film is to watch. Of course that is a generalization, but I think people spend a lot of energy trying not to think about the issues the film addresses, and I think the film challenges people to think about them.
IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?
SG: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman—they are amazing storytellers. Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas—their new film Tokyo Waka is gorgeous.
Kings Point will be screening August 3 through 9 at the IFC Center in New York City.
For the complete DocuWeeksTM 2012 program, click here.
To purchase tickets for Kings Point and the rest of the films in the DocuWeeks New York Shorts Program for Week 1, click here.