Rachel chats to Jocelyn Cammack, director of The Time of Their Lives

Rachel chats to Jocelyn Cammack, director of The Time of Their Lives

I caught up with Jocelyn Cammack, after watching her wonderful doc: The Times of Their Lives – screening at the festival on Sunday March 8th at the ICA at 4.30pm. This is one of the festival events I’m most looking forward to – particularly as Hetty (103) will be attending. A centenarian campaigner, with us, on International Women’s Day! Get ready to be seriously inspired…

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Hetty, in trademark felt hat, marching for peace at the age of 102, photographer Hugo Glendinning

Rachel: I used to work as a care assistant in old people’s homes. I loved it, but I can’t say I’d ever want to be a resident. The ‘home for the active elderly’ which you film looks completely different. Happy and healthy. How did you find it?

Jocelyn: I first heard about the Mary Fielding Guild through an article in The Guardian. At the time I was searching for an idea for a half hour that I’d been asked to do for Channel 4. I went up to meet the General Manager thinking I’d be there for about an hour. My reaction to the place came as a complete surprise. There was something special about the atmosphere. It just didn’t feel like an old peoples’ home. There was this unquestioning air of mutual respect between residents and staff. And I felt like I’d stumbled across a very particular community that I really wanted to know more about. By the time I left – some three and a half hours later – I knew that it if it was ever going to be a film it warranted much more than a commercial half hour (24 minutes). And over the next few months, yes, I very much began to imagine myself being able to live there in my old age. Unfortunately you can’t ‘book’ a place ’til you’re at least in your 70s!

Rachel: Your three main characters are sheer delight to watch. Was it hard to select them? Did you get to know others?

Jocelyn: Hetty was the first resident I met. I knew that she had marched on the anti-war demo (this was March ’07) and met her a couple of weeks after that at her daughter’s house in Hertfordshire. Over tea and cake, she talked for almost 3 hours, telling me her life story and particularly about her beloved late-husband Reg. And then, as I was about to leave, she stood up, took me by the arm, looked me dead in the eye and said, “You do know I want to die, don’t you?”.

Of course, the automatic reaction to this kind of question is to deny that the person is really serious, smile a lot, tell them they’ve got years in them yet – anything to make the situation less awkward. But I knew in that moment that none of that was an option with Hetty; she did want to die, she’s tired, she has had enough and I later discovered that Rose also felt the same way. It was the contradiction between this very real desire and their passion for life that I found so compelling.

I met many other residents, and they were all interesting and articulate people. But in story terms, there was something in the connections between Rose, Hetty and Alison. Rose and Hetty shared many beliefs.  Alison came to live at the Guild because of Hetty but their politics had diverged so radically in recent years. And Alison is a wonderfully direct personality as well as being very witty. As a self-confessed “show-off”, she is actually entirely herself on camera.

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Old friends, Hetty and Alison discussing 'euthanasia by photography'.

Rachel: Watching your film, I wept buckets, laughed out loud, and honestly felt a profound shift of perspective by the time I reached the end. It’s hugely affecting, largely because of the unique chance to ‘spend time’ with such truly inspirational women. Did making it change your life?

Jocelyn: It’s wonderful to hear you say that, thank you. Spending time at the Guild profoundly challenged my preconceptions of what it is to be ‘old’. I think what struck me most is the deep sense of confidence they have in who they are as individuals. Somehow I’d always assumed that because society has changed so radically in the last 15 years, since the arrival of the internet and digital technology, modern life must be incredibly alienating if not a bit weird to anyone in their eighties or more. But what I’ve begun to understand is that if you’ve been alive for 80, 90 or 100 years, your sense of who you are is so deep and so profound that it you don’t really care what someone else might think of you as long as you’re yourself.

Our modern day sense of who we are seems so fragile by comparison and often so bound up with some sense of our immediate effect on the people around us – our peers, our Facebook friends, the people we meet at some gathering. So it’s been really valuable for me to gain insight into that quieter, more fundamental way of being in the world, which I think is what underpins their capacity to be so incredibly honest about the really big things in life – like death.

The Time of  Their Lives screens at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on Sunday March 8th at 4.30pm, with a Q&A with director and lead character, Hetty. More info here.

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