NFF Interview: Meet the Filmmakers of PRETTY OLD

NFF: How did you come upon the Ms. Senior Sweetheart Pageant?  What made you want to share the stories of these women?


WALT: Pretty Old was inspired by Magnus Wennman's award-winning photojournalism displayed at the 2007 World Press Photo Exhibit in Copenhagen, Denmark. I had just finished looking at the war and sports photography when I stumbled into the still life exhibit. I walked around the corner and saw this majestic image that from afar looked like a photo-realist painting. It was three senior women backstage at what looked like a Broadway show, and was a mixture between beautifully vivid textures of skin tones with lights and glitter intermingled with a haunting reality of aging and a clinging to a past youth. For me there was something unexplainable about it and I couldn't stop staring. I looked at the caption and all it said was "Ms. Senior Sweetheart Beauty Pageant, Fall River, Massachusetts" - I was hooked. I wanted to make those pictures come alive. When I got back to the states I picked up the phone and called the number associated with the pageant and a man with a grainy voice picked up and said: "This is Lenny "Low Price" Kaplan, founder of the Ms Senior Sweetheart Pageant." I just had to make this movie.

For me it is such captivating story because we are all going to get old. But that process does not have to be simply a sad reality, full of suffering.  We want to show people how the harsh realities of aging and the purity of youth can exist together and how much knowledge can be gained from listening to and learning from one another.  And in the midst of the current global instability, my generation should ask those who have experienced similarly difficult times, questions that will provide much needed insight. To quote "Low Price" Lenny Kaplan, the founder of the pageant, we hope people will see that "seniors aren't dead and buried yet."

JOSH: We also hope the film can open up a conversation between two generations that rarely communicate about these issues. Internationally, seniors have become an under-served and under-represented population, especially in the media. In the past couple of years we have seen condescending documentaries and TV shows mocking seniors as out-of-touch, overtly sentimental, and childlike. We spend less time caring for and conversing with elder relatives, who are often placed in retirement homes, rather than taking care of and respecting them, as was traditionally the case. This film is hopefully a curative to that trend. Frankly, there's a lot more to be gained on our end by just opening up our eyes and ears and paying a little more attention.

NFF: Did your opinion of the pageant change after spending time with the contestants?

WALT: Absolutely, I think all of us went into the film with certain prejudices or expectations of what a beauty pageant for seniors might look like. At first I was primarily interested in finding out what type of seniors would subject themselves to the vanity of a beauty pageant (and I expect some of our audience will come to the film with a similar curiosity) . Misguided stereotypes of plastic surgery, caked-on makeup and brutal competitiveness drove my interest to find out more. Through the making of this film I discovered (as did the subjects within) that we all had similar interests, fears, desires. And that these simple, human needs crossed generational boundaries. We became real friends, real family, and we laughed, cried, and learned all together. My entire perspective about what it can mean to be and grow "old" was completely flipped on its head. And I think that's a process that everyone who worked on the film went through. And I think, hopefully, so will an audience.

NFF: The tone of the film, while at times humorous, is extremely respectful of these women and their lives.  How did you strike the right balance so that the women are celebrated, rather than trivialized?

JOSH: I think that's actually a real testament to what Lenny has created up there in Fall River. The pageant itself is such a repudiation of the cliches one would expect of a senior beauty pageant. It's really an 11 day celebration of women at a time in their lives that they're not usually celebrated. Beauty is such a multi-faceted word, obviously. But our modern culture does tend to place a premium on the superficial and not encourage shades of meaning. Lenny's love and deep respect for these women is so all encompassing and inclusive, it was impossible to not be swept along by his good example. But the pageant, while celebratory, also doesn't shy away from the hard side of life too; since many of the things the ladies are struggling with (finding meaning in their lives and relationships, coming to terms with getting older, confronting death and disease, searching for connection) are the things we all struggle with. In a lot of ways that's what Lenny's pageant taught us: to honor the sweetness and the sadness, the beauty and the decay that is inevitable with age. It's how the women approach their lives with such warmth and honesty that is truly beautiful. So it was incredibly important for us that the film captured that balance. Since the humor and the pathos are so inextricably intertwined. And that was a bar we constantly held the film up to in the editing process - it had to honor, celebrate and respect the women in the same way Lenny did.

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