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CUFF.Docs: Calgary filmmaker chronicles the last chapters of love in Bridgeland seniors home

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For a month in late 2019, Dominique Keller embedded herself in a strange new environment.

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At least it was strange and new for her. The Calgary filmmaker spent the month living at Aspen Silvera, a seniors residence in the city’s Bridgeland neighbourhood. She played bingo. She ate in the cafeteria. She had the two beers that were allowed for residents on “pub night.” She also got a room and slept there every night. There were practical reasons for this. It allowed her to meet most of the residents and explain why someone who is not a senior was wandering around the grounds with a video camera. But it also had a deeper impact on the filmmaker, who would eventually turn the footage into the National Film Board of Canada documentary Love: The Last Chapter.

“It was a life-changing experience,” Keller says, whose film will make its Alberta debut on Nov. 24 at the Globe Cinema as part of CUFF.Docs. “I remember the first night I slept in the lodge, I didn’t expect I would have an emotional response at all. But suddenly I go in there, I close the door, I lie down on the bed and, boom, it really hits me: I’ve moved in here. I could see the wheels of carts going (past) under the door, the light coming through and all of these emotions coming to the front. Is my family even going to worry about me? Does anybody care about me? Am I stuck here for the rest of my life? It was actually a terrifying experience, to be honest.”

At 45, Keller didn’t really have to worry about spending the rest of her life in a seniors residence or whether her family had forgotten about her. But these flights of imagination did offer her a taste of what moving into such facilities could be like for seniors: leaving your home and your life behind; living in a small room; eating communally from a set menu every day; being told how many beers you could drink on pub night. It all offered a sense of disconnection that emphasized for Keller how important it is to maintain intimate relationships at this stage of life.

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To be clear, Love: The Last Chapter is not an expose. Keller shoots it with a fly-on-the-wall, observational style and rarely brings herself into the story. While senior care has become an increasingly high-profile issue in Canada since the COVID-19 outbreak, she says the film offers no view about the quality of care in this country and leaves it up to the viewer to make that determination. Instead, she zeroes in on three couples living at Aspen Silvera. Jim and Diane are newlyweds who want more independence and are planning a move into their own place. Ruby and Victor are also a new couple who face some typical growing pains of any relationship. Ruby wants more commitment from Victor. At least one member of Victor’s family seems opposed to the relationship. George and Doreen, meanwhile, have been together for nearly half a century but are being forced to make some major decisions as Doreen enters the end stages of cancer and George deals with a loss of vision. “I always wanted to find out what love looked like at that endstage of life,” Keller says. “That was the question I went in with the documentary, looking to meet people and looking to understand what intimacy looks like in the last chapter. This group was really interesting to me because they were all friends, all interconnected. I really thought this was an interesting layer to the documentary, to follow this friend group and the different relationships they had with each other and then with their respective partners.”

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Some of the scenes are funny, some are touching and many are heartbreaking, particularly those involving George and Doreen. Big questions about love and mortality and commitment hover above small intimate scenes, whether it be Ruby and Victor squabbling over breakfast or the tender slow dance between Diane and Jim, who is in a wheelchair.

That said, older generations tend not to be quite as open as younger ones when it comes to sharing their intimate moments. These are not people used to sharing every nuance of their lives on social media. Keller has made several films that deal with aging. Her 2020 short documentary Ageless Athlete chronicled Guinness World Record-holding runner Martin Parnell’s attempts to get into peak form at the age of 62. Her 2017 documentary Grandma Learns to Drive was about an 86-year-old who wants to get her driver’s licence for the first time. But she said Love: The Last Chapter was the most challenging when it came to convincing her subjects to be open.

“My experience is that there is a much higher value placed on privacy in the generation that I follow in this documentary,” she says. “So it was more difficult to gain access and trust. There are no two ways about it, I don’t think I would have got it if I didn’t live there.”

Keller says she hopes the film shines a light on a subject that the media rarely tackles and few seem eager to talk about.

“Seniors typically enjoy very small roles in the media and usually they are stereotypical roles in your mainstream films, the grumpy old man, the frail old lady who is super nice,” she says. “It’s a very narrow bandwidth and I feel like it sends the message that once you get to a certain age, your story is over. I think we need to give seniors a voice and tell their stories. When you only give someone that small story to tell, it’s a dehumanizing thing.

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“The most dehumanizing thing we do to older adults, in general, is deny them these basic human properties, and one of the most denied is sexuality. Why is it so hard for people to think about? One of the personal conclusions I’ve come to is if we allow older adults to be sexual beings and allow them that piece of their humanity, then we admit to ourselves they aren’t that different from us. And if you admit to yourself that an older adult is no different than you then you also face your own mortality.”

Love: The Last Chapter will screen on Nov. 24 at 7 p.m. at the Globe Cinema as part of CUFF Docs. Visit calgaryundergroundfilm.org.

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