In 2009, a documentary idea simply fell into my lap. My two younger sisters were in high school when they decided to create a volunteer program called “Cyber-Seniors.” Inspired by seeing our grandparents get online and witnessing all the ways in which it changed their lives, they wanted to help other seniors do the same. I tagged along and filmed some of their lessons. My goal was to help my sisters out by creating some promotional material for the program.
From behind the camera I began to see generation gaps narrow and friendships develop. I immediately knew this was a story I wanted to tell, so with my mother as my producer, I set out to make my first documentary film. We brought on a small crew: one production assistant, one cinematographer and one audio recorder. We gained access to two local retirement homes full of seniors who were intrigued by the online world that they knew so little about. We put out an ad looking for teenagers interested in mentoring the seniors and received many responses. Some of the teens were keen to bulk up their college resumes, while some probably just liked the idea of being in a movie.
In my naivety I thought directing a doc would be easier than directing a narrative feature. I figured with no shot lists or scripts required, my only task was to point, shoot, and wait for the magic to happen. The magic did indeed happen! Both the seniors and students readily opened up to us in front of the camera, and we witnessed a series of heartwarming transformations from both parties. But as the footage began piling up, I realized the most difficult part would be piecing together a coherent story.
My editing tactic was to start with the scenes that inspired me most. Coming from a comedy background, my instinct was to go for the funny. I created 2-3 minute vignettes of humorous moments, accented with punch lines. The comedy came naturally: These two groups couldn’t be anymore different in their understanding of the tech world. But beyond the cute, comedic moments, compelling and poignant stories began to emerge.
It’s not easy learning something new, especially not in your later years. However, each character had his or her own reason for giving it a shot, the most common being the desire to reconnect with family who weren’t often around. Much has been said about the dangers of our rapidly developing tech culture and the ways it can isolate us from society. But through introducing the Internet to a group of people who had never used it before, I was reminded of all the wonderful things technology can bring to our lives, especially for older people who can’t move around as freely as they once could.
Even the teenagers involved quickly recognized the need for connection we all have, at any age. They gained a newfound respect for their elders and really began to enjoy their company. I became inspired by my own grandparent’s use of the Internet, and the film features a very personal B-storyline that demonstrates how the Internet allowed my family to support one another through hardships.
We are thrilled by the positive feedback the film has garnered so far, especially through the endorsement of the AARP Foundation, who are underwriting a theatrical tour for us. Making this film taught me a lot about later life, family, and the desire we all have to connect. We hope the film will inspire other young people to reach out to older citizens, whether it be their own grandparents or other seniors in their community, and help spread the Cyber-Seniors movement.
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