Documentary | Film Analysis | Film Reviews

Ma Belle

1 Mar , 2000  

Written by Julie Wolf | Posted by:

A Review of '94 Years and 1 Nursing Home Later'

The time I visited my grandmother in the nursing home (on a trip to New Jersey from home in Florida), I arrived expecting to leave with the makings of a good short story. I was 22 or 23, I kept a journal. You know the type. Old age was poignant, symbolic. I guess I expected one of those soap-opera moments, where I place my young, smooth hand over my grandmother’s old, knotted one, and my grandmother says something witty and wise. My grandmother wasn’t known for saying witty or wise things, but never mind. This would be a MOMENT, a tearjerker in the retelling. I was not prepared for what I got instead: my Bubby strapped to her bed, blind (I think — definitely not seeing), tiny and shriveled and singing or humming or babbling, uncomprehending and incomprehensible.

This memory flew at me as I watched Laurel Greenberg’s heartfelt and heartbreaking documentary of her grandmother’s last lonely years, "94 Years and 1 Nursing Home Later," a must-see at the New England Film and Video Festival. Combining her own film footage with old family photographs and her father’s awkward home videos of his visits to his mother, the Boston filmmaker, who lives in Jamaica Plain, takes a painfully realistic look at her grandmother’s emotional demise. Most of the elderly we see in films are active and quirky, spouting pearls of wisdom in between complaints over their latest denture adventure. Whatever she may have been in the past, Belle is no longer a firecracker; she is lonely and depressed and sometimes even self-pitying.

Belle Greenberg retired to Miami from Philadelphia in 1960, a 60-year-old widow. She stayed in Miami for 23 years, until a broken shoulder sent her back to Philadelphia for an extended recovery. The Greenberg family lived in Philadelphia. Sort of. It was their base, at any rate. Granddaughters (Greenberg and her sisters) were scattered about the east coast, and Belle’s son and daughter-in-law wouldn’t be there much longer. It was getting close to the time for them to retire to Florida, too.

Belle’s story is a common one. What is uncommon, though, is the fact that a son and then a granddaughter caught the communication breakdown all on film. When Belle was about 90, her son Marvin, Greenberg’s father, began to make home movies of his visits with his mother at the Jewish Home for the Aged. Mostly these films show Belle sitting in a chair as her son asks her questions that could come from a stranger: "How have things been here?" and so on.

Belle’s son the doctor. Greenberg’s father is a psychiatrist who seems completely unable to recognize his own mother’s suffering. At one point Laurel asks, "If she were a patient of his, would he have detected her crisis sooner?" The problem is, of course, that she has become, in a sense, his patient — at first it felt like she was his sister, Marvin says, then like he was the parent. Unable or unwilling to play the caretaker part (Greenberg seems reluctant to venture a guess), Marvin and his wife, Dorothy, provide for Belle, but from a distance.

Greenberg’s narration sometimes comes across as "I" heavy: Isn’t this film about Belle? Well, sort of. The significance for the viewer lies in the fact that it is as much about the fragmentation of the modern family. Because Greenberg is so close to her subject — one could argue that she, as part of this family, is her subject — she doesn’t tell a particularly dramatic story. But that "I" damns the viewer to inserting himself or herself into Greenberg’s movie. Belle, or "Meemom," resonates more with the viewer as an old person than as a unique grandmother with a unique history. This works in Greenberg’s favor, though; watching "94 Years" becomes an incredibly personal viewing experience, inevitably leading the viewer to similar scrutiny of one’s own family, and familial obligations.

Words like "elder care" and "assisted living" have now fixed themselves in our vocabularies, allowing younger generations to distance themselves from the reality of old age. Belle cared for her father, her brothers and her uncles when she was a young woman, and now she must die alone in a facility. Fair? Not at all. Surprising? Not really. This is tragedy on an everyday level, a topic that Greenberg’s warts-and-all movie forces the viewer to confront. Greenberg’s film is not confessional in the manner of that onslaught of memoirs that were published a few years ago ("The Kiss," "The Liars’ Club"), but it takes a great deal of courage to document your family’s emotional distance, and the ultimate heartbreak of a 94-year-old woman.

For more information, visit http://www.94years.com ’94 Years and 1 Nursing Home Later’ received an Honorable Mention in the 25th annual New England Film and Video Festival and will screen on Tuesday, March 28, at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. Later this year the film will also be featured in the 2000 Portland Jewish Film Festival in Oregon. For more information about NEFVE, go to http://www.NewEnglandFilm.com/festival/2000/schedule00.htm.


For more information, visit http://www.94years.com '94 Years and 1 Nursing Home Later' received an Honorable Mention in the 25th annual New England Film and Video Festival and will screen on Tuesday, March 28, at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. Later this year the film will also be featured in the 2000 Portland Jewish Film Festival in Oregon. For more information about NEFVE, go to http://www.NewEnglandFilm.com/festival/2000/schedule00.htm.