When I started my blog on the representation of old women I needed to limit my field of research. I decided to exclude animation, because I am not very versed in the genre, and documentaries because the area might be too wide for my limited time. But enough excuses, fiction films have been my passion but I see that I have been forced to write about some documentaries.
I’m Caroline Parker (posted on October 2011), (Fabulous Fashionistas (posted Feb 2014) Advanced Style (posted May 2014), Mamadrama (posted Oct. 2014)
After Fabulous Fashionistas I was driven to view another documentary directed by Sue Bourne Mum and Me (TV film 2008). I saw it with Jane G. a member the Old Women in Film Group. Our reactions differed.
I have very little experience of Alzheimer’s and given the pervasive dread about the disease, which I share, I probably look for education in films (in particular documentaries) that feature the condition. Early on in the film Sue explains that her mum’s adaptive and social skills (i.e. bluffing) sometimes made it difficult to know how bad her memory was. This was born out on many occasions in the film when Ethel gives soothing assurances that she remembers something when, with ‘testing’, it’s clear she does not. This was an important ‘educational’ point that I tucked away and may have had expectation of hearing more.
The relationships between 3 generations were wonderful to see. I imagined the honesty and ‘in your faceness’, had always been there. On the other hand I’m sure that Sue and Holly had to adapt how they interacted with the diminished social world of Ethel. I’d have liked this to be spelled out in a simple way as in the example before.
There was one moment where I remember Holly mentioned her grades but apart from that I don’t remember there being any evidence that Sue or Holly talked about the rest of their lives with Ethel. Were these bits edited out? Is this part of social interaction they adapted to with the progress of Ethel’s Alzheimer’s?
The title of the film makes it clear that it wasn’t conceived as a ‘how to support someone with Alzheimer’s’. And yet I learned a great deal and felt incredibly moved watching it, and thinking about it still.
I thought the film was beautifully made and liked that Sue made it clear she’d never actually operated the camera before, and showed the scenes fumbling with the equipment. I wonder how much film she shot in all? Did the ideas informing the selection of what to include emerge in the course of filming? How did she know when to stop?
I’d be very interested to know what criticisms of the film others had, and what was their background e.g. those with personal experience of supporting someone? Alzheimer association? etc etc???
Bourne says : … what I did want to do was make a film that showed you can still have a life – and a laugh – together in spite of Alzheimer’s. Because that is what my mother was showing us was possible. I was worried that Bourne would show us a rather jolly picture. But she is good at getting to the heart of a subject. She does not spell out issues. She shares with us her understanding of people and the challenges they face.
I found the film extraordinary and I marvel at the way that out of three years of monthly filming Bourne’s last edit conveys the complex picture of relationships with a person with Alzheimer’s. Although Bourne insists that she shoots what is and let people comment, it is clear to me that in this editing she has selected certain features of the relationships between Ethel, her daughter Sue, and Holly the granddaughter that highlight what to my mind is very important. Of course I can only write from my own experience of the illness that struck my father a powerful man not prone to laughter.
What is striking in this film is that in order to relate to Ethel, both Sue and her daughter had to put aside their own past relationships with her and find a new way to relate. The relationship loses its past tensions and becomes just an affective one. During their visits, Sue and Holly project a happy mood, sometimes joking and even teasing. Ethel follows suit. But Bourne does show how when Sue’s personal needs rise to the fore because of tiredness and a difficult time with a mastectomy she reacts angrily to her mother who calls her ‘useless’. This impatience, intolerance of the old woman that was not shown before surfaces here. Bourne does not shy away from showing her mother’s loss of control of bodily functions and cleans after her. This is treated in a very matter of fact way. So is the gradual decline which is perceptible and follows a natural course. Some shots of Ethel’s impassive, vacant face hint at the sadness of the condition.
It is also interesting to consider the relationship of Holly with her grandmother. This is a very gentle physical one. Holly does Ethel’s hair, clothes her, lies next to her. There is a lot of communication by touch. It occurred to me that we hesitate to take our children to see their grandparents if they suffer from dementia. It is my experience that my daughter had a very easy relationship with her grandfather as it was devoid of complicated history. He greatly enjoyed her visits. Maybe the role of Holly who was a significant support for her mother should have been included in the title.
I wish this film was made all these years ago when I visited my father. It would have helped me understand what was going on.