Passion has no age in new documentary

Do we ever get too old to dream? According to the subjects of a new documentary about aging entertainers, you’re never too old to learn or hone a new passion.

Jilann Spitzmiller, a Redding native, and her husband, Hank Rogerson, will have their most recent documentary, Still Dreaming, premiere on PBS on April 14 at 8 p.m. The film follows the residents of the Lillian Booth Actors Home for retired entertainers and relatives of entertainers as they put together a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“At the heart of it, it’s about following your passions every day of your life. No matter what your state of mind is, no matter what your physical state is, no matter where you are, following your passion is so important to your life in that it adds so much,” Spitzmiller said when describing the film.

Spitzmiller, who has been making documentaries for 30 years with her spouse, said that Still Dreaming was her favorite project to work on to date.

“As a documentarian your ear is always to the ground for stories,” she said. “We came across the actors home in New Jersey that had a Shakespeare club and a drama club so they were still doing some theater even though they were ‘retired.’ We were really interested in what effect the arts have for older adults.”

Spitzmiller said she was drawn to the project because as a child she saw how her grandmother had a very limited quality of life after being moved into a nursing home.

“I was excited to walk those two blocks to work and see what was going to happen with this incredible group of people. When they started engaging and started getting excited and they started waking back up to their own talents and their own passions — that was such a thrill to witness,” Spitzmiller said. “There was this beautiful energy that started building and this sense of joy and community that really was amplifying as the process went forward.”

Spitzmiller noted that many of the documentary’s subjects were challenged by their physical limitations and their health issues, but that working on A Midsummer Night’s Dream “gave them a shared purpose.”

“I think when you’re an elder and in an assisted living home, you’re around people all the time but you can also be quite isolated. This brought people together around their passions,” she said. “It was really transformative to everyone and I think they were really surprised. You’re so in the heart of the human experience in times like that where people are surprised by what’s going on with themselves, or how they’re transforming, and it’s an incredible experience to witness that.”

One of the subjects in the film, Lynette Loose, grew into an actor throughout the film.

“She’s very timid and she’s never done theater before and she can barely speak up for herself, and by the end of this process she’s had a major personal awakening. She’s found her voice and she starts speaking out and realizing that she can be kind of wild and have fun and run around the stage if she wants,” Spitzmiller said.

Making a documentary is not an easy process, Spitzmiller said, noting that Still Dreaming was filmed in 2011 over the course of six weeks and later spent two and a half years undergoing edits. Typically the couple spends three to five years working on their documentaries, but they found it was much harder to gain the necessary funding to release this film, which Spitzmiller ascribes to its focus on aging. She said that while aging is a difficult topic for people to discuss, it’s still important.

“It’s always really bothered me that we as a society tend to segregate our elders. I think our elders have so much to offer us still and we to them, and there’s this sort of break in the fabric of family,” she said. “Even with the mental and the physical aging challenges, I think we still need to give them opportunities and include them in our everyday life.”

When asked what she hopes people will take away from the film, Spitzmiller said she hopes people will enjoy it and have a few laughs.

“I hope that people see how valuable it is to engage in the arts no matter what age you are, and it doesn’t have to be theater. It could be painting, it could be photography, it could be anything — but having seen what [the arts have] done for older adults, it blew me away.”

The Spitzmiller/Rogerson documentary team was formed during their college days when the couple met in a film class. Spitzmiller said she had been surprised when she fell in love with filmmaking because she never saw herself as an artist or a storyteller when she was growing up in Redding.

“What I like about it as I’ve grown into it and become better at it is that it uses every part of me. Being on a documentary shoot is an exercise in physical, emotional and mental stamina because you are trying to figure out the story as you go and trying to figure out what you need to shoot to tell the story that you’re witnessing,” she said. “I feel that I grow immensely with every project.”