Earlier this year, Aging Today received a preview DVD of a remarkable feature documentary by Doug Block titled 51 Birch Street. Soon after the film's somewhat prosaic home-video tensing around Block's parents' home, the production begins to take a series of unexpected-sometimes stunning-twists and turns. More than most documentaries we receive delineating the issues of growing old, 51 Birch Street tells the story of aging, of family, of intergenerational conflict, of marriage, of betrayal, of bereavement, of late-life romance and of emotional growth at any age. Recently, we witnessed a warm and enthusiastic reception for 51 Birch Street at a film festival in San Francisco, echoing the response to the documentary at festivals internationally, according to many articles and positive reviews.
This fall, the film is being given a rare theatrical release for a documentary feature in selected cities around the United States, and in spring 2007 it will be screened on HBO, which backed the film. Block also plans to speak at the 2007 Joint Conference of the American Society on Aging and National Council on Aging in Chicago, March 7-10, in a session titled "Boomers in Focus: Filmmakers Turn the Lens on Their Parents-And Themselves." To learn more about 51 Birch Street, including information on noncommercial distribution, visit the website at www.51BirchStreet.com.
In the following article, written exclusively for Aging Today, filmmaker Doug Block describes how this production evolved from what began as home video.
-Paul Kleyman, Editor
51 Birch Street is a film I never set out to make. I mean, who in their right mind would choose to delve into some of the most personal aspects of their parents' relationship, much less reveal it for public consumption?
Although I'm a documentary filmmaker by profession, making this one was the farthest thing from my mind three years ago when I visited our suburban family home in Port Washington, N.Y., for the last time. Yes, I did bring my digital camcorder with me, but it was just to capture the house I grew up in for posterity. Or so I thought.
SUDDEN AND SHOCKING
A lot had happened in the previous year. First, my mother, whom I was always very close to, died without warning after a short illness. Then, three months later, my father, with whom I'm not as close, called from Florida to announce he was moving in with his secretary of 40 years ago, Kitty. They quickly married, sold the house and now were about to leave the area for good. It was all pretty shocking in its suddenness-especially seeing my emotionally distant dad acting like a rejuvenated man.
Everyone thought my parents' 54-year marriage had been ideal, but when Dad and Kitty became husband and wife, they held a kiss for an embarrassingly long 12 seconds. I wasn't the only one who began to wonder.
Still, I was philosophical about it and told my two older sisters, "Dad's 83 and, hey, good for him. He's moving forward, life marches on, and all that." None of us relished the idea of him living all alone in that big house. Then I walked inside the house, saw our entire family history being packed away in boxes and it all hit me like a punch in the stomach. Although I hadn't lived there in well over 30 years, on some very primal level I still thought of 57 Birch Street as my home.
I knew my mother had kept a journal, but I wasn't prepared for finding three large cartons filled with her daily diaries going back 35 years. She left no instructions about what to do with them, and, while no one was anxious to read them, none of us could bring themselves to throw them out, either.
It soon became apparent that my father, who is from that World War II generation of men who were generally silent about themselves, was not merely willing but eager to talk. I found that my camera was facilitating the conversation by allowing me to ask the difficult questions I could never have broached otherwise. …