Hot Docs preview: Autumn Gold [2010, Jan Tenhaven]

Toronto – “For those of you in the audience who’s not in the special club and want to know what it’s like to have children, adopt an 100 yr old man, who needs 24 hr nursing care. And then find out, gee, my life’s really changed.” So said Dana Carvey on his HBO special. Well. What if you have 100 yr old men and women who do not require oxygen cylinders or pampering? What if their lives have barely changed such that they still live as if they are 60 odd years younger? What would Dana Carvey say in that case? “Mmm. Well that’s definitely a pleasurable sensation!”

Ok. If anyone has seen that show I apologize – those two lines were taken completely out of context. But just as out of context is the name of this documentary: it should really be called Winter Gold. This is the story of 5 athletes as they journey to Lahti, Finland, for the 2009 World Masters Athletics Championships in track and field. If the average age in most developed countries is 75 to 80, then there’s nothing “autumn” about these athletes’ age. Jiri Soukup, Gabre Gabric, Herbert Liedtke, Alfred Proksch, and Ilse Pleuger, are all over 80, and some over 90 years old. The Masters (not golf… although that comparison can be fitting…) is an age-group competition – where one competes within their own group and his/her performance is then normalized with an “age factor” so that it’s comparable to others’. Often times you might watch a documentary and think: “Oh, there’s nothing special about these people, I can _____ (insert activities like backyard wrestle, run carnivals, skydive, highrise wirewalk), too, if I wanted to”. Not here. The film makers simply followed these men and women on their training and daily life so that the experiences can be “pre” lived by us, who will probably not have the chance. Ever. The energy of these geriatric was simply astounding. In the opening, Jiri (82), climbed 5 stories in 1 minutes and was still composed enough to dole out some wisdom on life. Gabre (94) led a group of 60 yr olds on aerobics exercise and then trained on her bike. Herbert ran the 100m sprint, Alfred still sketched nudes at 100, and Ilse danced around the living room with a broom looking/moving like she’s 45 and not 95.

It is a nice touch that Tenhaven did not make this feel like a freak show of immortals, which it easily could have been if he had focused on or even mis-emphasized these people’s idiosyncrasies (aka the style of some Japanese TV documentaries…): did they have special diets, environment control, meditation? Is there a ritual they go through daily? The answer, surprisingly, is no. These people led normal lifestyles. If anything, the secret to longevity is there is no such secret and you should stop worrying about one. Rather, we are reminded of what happens when you live long enough – everyone and everything else dies, trees included. There were definitely moments of intense longing. Perhaps that’s a part of the reason they enter these competitions – the need to be with peers and not feel alone. And then there’s the competitiveness that still drives these people. It’s not a small competition, either – I think there’s maybe 5000 or so competitors each year. That’s bigger than some scientific conferences. I have mixed feelings about the slow-motion shots in this film. On one hand it allows you to see the focus and concentration on their faces, but it was also slightly melodramatic and clashed a bit with the rest of the film, when it cuts from a demure narrative to something out of the Kraken battle in the Clash of Titans. I rather enjoyed that dimmed optimism – knowing that finality is imminent and yet quietly go on living one’s life – without high drama. You’ll have to watch to get the individual results of the competition – I’ll just close by saying that it was very cool to hear O Canada mixed-in with the credits. Watch for hilarity when The Italian shows up!

Catch the documentary on:
May 4th (Tuesday) 7:00 pm @ Isabel Bader Theater.
May 6th (Thursday) 11:30 am @ Isabel Bader Theater.

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Hot Docs, Reviews