I was on holiday with two of my closest friends last week. Amidst the flow of beer, the puffing of cigarettes and the non-stop giggling, the conversation turned to our grandmothers. We talked about how our grandmothers had grown up in such a different time to ourselves, how we are (as women) afforded things that our grandmothers would never have been.
We joked and laughed but underneath all of it, we felt somewhat sad that just two generations ago, things were very different. We all agreed that we wished that each of our grandmothers would have had the chance to enjoy a holiday with their friends at our age, instead of being tied solely to responsibilities of motherhood or of being a wife.
Interestingly, I watched I Know a Woman Like That just two days later. The film brought up so many of the things which my small group of friends talk about fairly regularly, and had discussed at length the previous weekend. Coincidental? Possibly. I happen to think it’s less coincidental, and more the case that women think about these things more than they let on.
I am talking, specifically, about women here because they are the focus of I Know a Woman Like That. Particularly older women, a group which tends to be made invisible by the mainstream media and Hollywood alike. Once you reach a certain age as a woman, you become invisible. I Know a Woman Like That is a series of conversations between author and filmmaker Elaine Madsen and other influential women, discussing the idea of growing older, beauty, achievements, children and feminism.
Is Getting Old That Bad?
I Know a Woman Like That takes a handful of women between the ages of 64-94, and allows them to talk, explore and discuss with the film’s director Elaine Madsen on all manner of topics. The interviewees include Eartha Kitt, Lauren Hutton, Rita Moreno, Gloria Steinem, among other influential women who talk at length about the idea of age. Heart-warmingly, there is an overwhelming sense of age not factoring into their lives. Most of the women interviewed don’t see themselves as aging or old rather they see themselves as experienced and knowledgeable, which is a refreshing take on the way which society views older women (notably, as pretty much invisible).
First off, this is not a visual film. The camera work has the feeling of a home movie – which sometimes works and sometimes does not. Whilst the amateur-style cinematography helps to evoke the idea of a casual conversation, it can also be off-putting at times – shots not in focus or not directing us to any particular area of the frame. Documentaries, by their nature, tend not to go for stylized cinematography but in this case the roughness does not feel deliberate. There are certainly points that feel natural, that is in part due to the nature of Madsen’s relationship with daughter Virginia, who assists in the making of the film. Overall though, it feels pretty lacking in the aesthetics department.
Despite having a clear beginning and ending (both of which work incredibly well), the film lacks a clear structure, opting instead for a set of interviews strung together. In the second half it certainly picks up, as we begin to cut between each of the women as they talk in more depth about their aspirations and what it means to them to be an older woman. The film begins to flow better and consequently becomes more engaging.
We see how all of these women feel that they have experienced similar lives, similar struggles and that achievements are completely personal and relative. They can definitely all be categorised as ‘women like that’. In comparison to the first half, which seems formulaic, the second really begins to ask the questions we want the answers to and provides us with some incredible quotes; “Just because we get wrinkles, doesn’t mean it’s really over”.
Honesty & Genuinity
What I Know a Woman Like That lacks in structure and aesthetics, it makes up for in the frankness of the conversation between Madsen and the other women. It very much feels like a casual conversation amongst friends, there is a clear sense of honesty and that all of these women are speaking from the heart. There is little pretence, and no staging – making the film seem incredibly genuine.
The standout interviews include Eartha Kitt, Lucille Borgen (a 94 year old Water Ski champion) and (unsurprisingly) Gloria Steinem. It is within these interviews that the more interesting questions begin to be asked and answered. There is a certain rapport with these women that Madsen manages to engage with throughout their interviews. It’s thoroughly engaging to watch. “I am a fucking icon”, says Elaine Kaufman. Too right.
The discussion of activism and political momentum with Lupe Anguiano is also incredibly special – as a woman who has faced injustice. Madsen isn’t scared to ask questions of Anguiano that might be otherwise controversial (“what did you think you were doing by becoming a nun?”). Anguiano talks about the relationship between being a nun and self sufficiency; the correlation between having religion and faith and helping other women.
Possibly the most engaging moment of the film comes right at the end, in a conversation between Madsen and daughter Virginia, where they discuss everything they have learnt on their journey across the States. They talk about how inspired they have been by these women’s stories and how it’s shaped their individual perspectives on growing older. There is a moment where Madsen becomes emotional and Virginia exclaims that she’s never seen her mother cry, though Madsen has seen her daughter cry many times. This echoes the bond between mother and daughter, of supporting one another.
This intimate moment seemed to sum up all of the ideas that had been stated in the previous interviews and I couldn’t help wishing that the film had involved more of this. I wanted to see how Madsen and Virginia journeyed together. In fact, I couldn’t help wondering if I Know a Woman Like That would have been a stronger film if it had been structured around this relationship between mother and daughter, and supported by interviews with other women, rather than the other way round. Just seeing them talk openly with each other was far more interesting than most of the first half of the film.
Unpolished, but Inspiring
Although a bit rough round the edges, this film will speak to women everywhere no matter what age you are. You will find yourself (subconsciously) nodding and agreeing with comments that are made and there is an overwhelming sense of community throughout.
However, I Know a Woman Like That had the potential to be a really inspiring and thought provoking documentary, and whilst these women are pretty inspiring (94 year old Water Ski Champion!!) I do feel it could have gone a little further to reach this goal.
Which films do you think represent age and growing older an interesting or unique way? Do you think the documentary format works when discussing issues like this that we will all face?
I Know a Woman Like That is now available across digital platforms and on DVD.
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.