IDFA 2018: Good Neighbours
16 November 2018
The trigger for Stella van Voorst van Beest's doc about the need to get neighbourly was a horrendous act of social negligence that the citizens of Rotterdam had witnessed a few years previously. Nick Cunningham reports.
In 2013 it was reported that the body of a 74-year-old woman had been discovered in her Rotterdam apartment. What made the case truly shocking was that she had died ten years previously, the exact date showing on the bottom-most item of post lying beneath a mountain of untouched mail.
While neighbours offered up lame excuses as to how this could have happened, much (justifiable) existential navel-gazing was undertaken by the local Rotterdam authority who eventually assembled a group of volunteers tasked with visiting all inhabitants aged 75+ to determine if their social networks were sufficient.
Van Voorst van Beest's Good Neighbours, in Dutch Competition and recipient of Netherlands Film Fund post-production support, follows two such volunteers as they go on their rounds, and further focusses on two single elderly people whose keen sense of gratitude emerges gradually throughout the course of the film. "Loneliness itself is an intriguing subject, to think about what it actually means in our time," comments the director. "I live alone so sometimes I have ideas for the future. How do I want to grow old? Loneliness is always dark, it confronts us with our own fears, it is not something people like to watch or see, and I thought the best way for me to confront this is to go to the people and experience it, and hang around."
Helpers Ada and Wilma employ basic skills and dole out homespun advice as they drive from house to house. Ada is kind and cheerful and prone to tears, while Wilma is altogether more tough, cynical and at times dismissive. She also possesses a rasping voice after years of smoking. Meanwhile former accordionist Mister van Tol, in his 80s and just as lachrimose as Ada when he plays his old records, can barely walk and has to be washed every day by a nurse. Mrs Van der Keij (86) is bright and sprightly but her children haven't made contact in years, and in the photographs she offers up she never seemed to smile in their presence, even as infants.
Like in all excellent fiction, tension courses through every scene of this documentary. The task of the volunteers is put into initial context by two youthful team leaders (neither of whom seem to impress Ada or Wilma) who announce that the percentage of single elderly Rotterdam folk who profess to feeling lonely is fixed at an unacceptable 27%. This figure must come down! We hear of past domestic violence and we are witness to powerful emotional reaction following the diagnosis of life-threatening illness. Ada and Mrs van der Keij begin to bicker and Mr van Tol's lonely status seems to intensify when he attends a jamboree for the elderly in a community centre.
"With every film I try something new, I need a new challenge," stresses Van Voorst van Beest. "In this case it was to see if I could make a film that was more dramatic. With this subject I could easily have made a film about lonely people and just sit with them, but the volunteer scheme gave me the opportunity to bring in this motor for dramatic development."
The mathematics of the film are very neat. Two volunteers, two elderly stars and two young and enthusiastic team leaders. There are also two dogs which, aside from providing much needed company for the pensioners, offer much audiovisual value. "They make for good cinema and you can express things through dogs," the director agrees. "They have a relationship with their owner so I thought I can also use them as a mirror of their owner, to reflect their feelings, so in the end it was a present for us that they both had one - and for the story also."
SEE NL Magazine #33 November 2018 / IDFA Issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by EYE International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.