Swiss doc fest Visions du Réel’s second virtual edition frames multiple titles – “The Bubble, “My Old Man” and “The Home” portraying an ever growing and aging demographic and the conditions in which its members live the final stage of their lives.
The debut feature documentary of Chase Musslewhite and Jesse Zinn, the later also VdR with short film “Wavelengths,” “The Home,” like “The Bubble,” plumbs the world of residential homes with an empathetic eye.
Having passed through IFP Film Week as well as the Sheffield Meet Market, the doc, which is funded by South Africa’s National Film and Video Foundation, playfully examines the lives of the Highland House’s residents and those who take care of them -mostly Black women- underlining still rankling racial separation in South Africa. At the same time, it revises the idea of old age – many of the residents are certainly not done yet – and from time to time goes off into existential meditations as death is always close by.
Variety talked with Zinn and Musslewhite as their first cut was presented in Visions du Réel’s Works in Progress strand at which they said that they are still on the lookout for a sales agent.
In documentary there’s very often a big difference between the initial concept of the film and the final result. What was your initial interest in this topic and what did you find while filming it?
Zinn: I first became interested in the topic when my grandmother passed away. It was then that I discovered she had been living life on the wild side at her Jewish retirement home in South Africa. At her funeral, her friends and carers relayed infamous stories of the woman who would drink multiple glasses of gin & tonics while hitting on all the single men. It sparked my interest in exploring the space of the old age home as it exists today in South Africa.
Musslewhite: When we first brought a camera into the home we were not sure which people we would focus the narrative on. We soon discovered that the home had a resident committee and elections were coming up. The residents who formed part of this esteemed committee were vivacious, and all showed enthusiasm to be part of the film. We decided to follow their narratives while at the same time turning the lens to the women who look after them, who form a major part of our narrative.
As the film develops there is a clear mirroring of both the residents and those who take care of them, formally underlining the racial division in a post-apartheid South Africa. What were your cues when approaching this theme visually?
While filming, we realized that the old age home reflects a microcosm of South Africa today, where a legacy of segregation still lingers post-apartheid. In the home, this division manifests through the dynamic between the residents and the women who look after them. These women (“carers”) work around the clock on minimum wage to make sure the residents’ needs are met. Their lives contrast starkly with the majority of the residents who live comfortably and financially stress-free. Visually, we wanted to explore these two differing worlds that co-exist under the same roof. But at the same time, we also didn’t want to impose our own beliefs onto the way that the carers and residents interacted with one another. We decided to approach both the carers and residents scenes with the same cinematic language – locked off vignettes with long takes in which the action unfolds autonomously within the frame. Through the juxtaposition, these frames reveal how the lives of these two groups differ, while also revealing the interesting parallels between them. Similarities surrounding issues of death, love, and loss allow the film to shed a more nuanced light on what it means to grow old in a post-apartheid South Africa.
The film structure uses the election of the residents committee as a revolving point. Why did it attract your attention? How was the process when structuring the film?
The elections immediately attracted our attention due to the types of personalities who were on the pre-existing resident committee, as well as the people who wanted to run for a spot on the new team. All of these residents also showed explicit interest in being the so-called “stars” of the documentary (which initially did cause a bit of drama within the social scene of the home!). When we first discussed the film, we knew that we wanted to stay away from any stereotypical depictions of ageing as inherently depressing and sad. We wanted the film to authentically project the inner life of the home which, at its core, is energetic, hilarious and full of life. The resident committee elections provided an answer to this as an upbeat, comedic and dramatic narrative arc.
The film has moments of great lyricism lead by its music. There are a couple of montages that use both Beethoven and Strauss in renowned songs used by Kubrick, contrasting with another scene that plays over a reggaeton song. What was your approach when creating these moments?
While filming we noticed the pervasiveness of music in the home and the drastic difference in the types of music being played due to/by the different types of people working and living in the home. We wanted to use music as a stylistic tool to highlight the quirky nuances between all the worlds coexisting under the same roof and to highlight the varying personalities of our main characters. In a country (South Africa) that has more than 11 distinct official languages, music emerged in the home as a universal language that everyone, residents and carers alike, could understand and mutually relate to. We also use music as a narrative structuring tool. Our film webs and flows between fly-on-the-wall observational scenes and musical montages which help weave different chapters together like a visual quilt embodying both the nuances of the space and the dynamics of its patrons.