Julia Mourri: “We want to show the levers that exist to restore the place of the elderly in society”

Julia Mourri: “We want to show the levers that exist to restore the place of the elderly in society”

Julia Mourri and Clément Boxebeld, founders of the multimedia project Oldyssey, shown here in Paris on 28 January 2020, film the lives of elderly people throughout the world.

(Béatrice Fainzang)

We are living longer and longer lives. The World Health Organization estimates that within just two generations, between 2000 and 2050, the proportion of the world’s population over the age of 60 will double from 11 per cent to 22 per cent, reaching two billion people. How are cities and countries adapting to this situation? What kind of support are elderly people receiving during this ‘new’ period of life? Why is it time to take an interest in this and finally put an end to the opposition between generations?

To explore these questions, two young French documentary filmmakers, Julia Mourri and Clément Boxebeld, launched an ambitious project to create media “about old people.” In 2017, they launched Oldyssey, an audiovisual and human journey to meet elderly people throughout the world and give a voice to those who are ignored and forgotten but who have so much to give, especially to younger generations. Over three years of meetings in a dozen countries, the filmmakers made dozens of video reports on the passions, social engagement and role in society of elderly people in European, African, American and Asian countries, which they have made available on their website. They have also published a book on the “initiatives that bring generations together” and are currently exploring old age in the regions of France.

Why is it so important to take an interest in the elderly?

Julia Mourri: It all started with our grandparents, wanting to talk about them, and the realisation that we speak very little about the elderly. When we do, it is often in negative terms. But they have incredible potential. They are fun and very photogenic. We realised that we could play a role since so few media outlets allow their voices be heard. When they are covered, it’s generally in an alarmist or negative way, issues surrounding retirement, dependency, scandals in nursing homes, etc. But we rarely see them in a fun or positive light. We wanted to change that because we have a lot to learn from the elderly.

Clément Boxebeld: We often reduce seniors to economic cost or demographic burden. They are spoken of in a very dehumanising way and we wanted to change that by showing them as people in their own right, not just clichés. They are often portrayed as belonging to the past, not inhabiting the same world that we do or having a place in our current society, particularly when it comes to technology and the emergence of new language codes. We wanted to tell their stories, to show that the elderly also have desires, aspirations and plans. It was important for us to highlight the role that they can play and raise questions about the place they deserve in society. How can we create intergenerational connections by benefitting from all the potential they have to offer?

Is the systematic opposition of generations a modern phenomenon?

JM: When we started talking to the people we know, we realised that many of them see older people as an age group that is resistant to change, has destroyed our planet and does not care about the world it will leave behind. This is contrasted with the dynamic young generations committed to reversing this trend. Nothing could be further from the truth. We spent seven months gathering material, exploring academic literature to find what has been done on the subject and understand how we talk about the elderly. And frankly, there are so many models and initiatives throughout the world that prove just the opposite. There has never been a greater need for us to think together, hand in hand.

CB: Even the term ‘retirement’ says a lot about how we view old age. It’s the idea of the withdrawal of an age group that is non-productive and thus of no interest to a world defined by work. However, many studies by sociologists, anthropologists and gerontologists reveal the opposite.

What was your approach and what were your sources of inspiration?

JM: After doing a lot of research on the subject, we starting searching the world for models of ageing that we considered to be innovative. After identifying the models and countries, we contacted local experts working in these areas to understand how each country responds differently to the issue of ageing. These exchanges gave us a lot of inspiration and influenced our journey. Thanks to Miwako Honda, for example, a geriatrician at Tokyo University Hospital, we learned of the existence of the humanitude method, which she introduced in Japan where it has been very successful. It’s a French methodology based on the work of Yves Gineste that works with the gaze and tenderness. The Japanese are very modest, they never make eye contact and don’t hug or caress, so when people reach a very advanced age or have a type of Alzheimer’s disease, it becomes very difficult to communicate with them. Humanitude has allowed patients and their loved ones to live better lives. The Japanese have been very receptive to the method and it has worked so well that now whole cities are training caregivers and citizens to communicate and make eye contact with people with Alzheimer’s. This is the kind of humane and pragmatic approach that we wanted to show.

CB: We wanted to create portraits that show the specifics of ageing in different countries but our approach wasn’t scientific, so we turned to experts for help. Justine Rochot, a sociologist specialising in old age and ageing in China, studies the way that older people gather in parks as a way of overcoming isolation. She told us about a project based in a Beijing park called ‘Old Women in Beijing Have Something to Say’. Older women have entered the digital space by creating an online channel in which they are the actors. Every day they discuss current events and give their opinions on the role that elderly people play in Chinese society. There are numerous programmes about this generation of parents of only one child who find themselves alone after the child moves out. They also deal with lighter subjects, like a former matchmaker who gives romantic advice to the other seniors. These women have had lots of success on social media and are contributing to providing an alternative image of older people in the country. We liked it a lot because it’s similar to what we do: giving a voice to the elderly, going beyond generational stereotypes.

JM: They’ve become real influencers, very popular on social networks. They are very famous in China and retired people often approach them on the street to tell them how they’ve changed their lives because, in addition to their daily episodes, they give online tutorials that are very popular, like how to use mobile phones to pay in shops, for example. They have a large community of followers and forums dedicated to them. It was interesting to learn more about them.

The Ageing Equal campaign, launched in 2018, and the anti-ageism movement have helped to call out the discrimination of which many elderly people are victims. In your opinion, what should be done to overcome stereotypes?

CB: It’s a question of mind set. If we don’t succeed in changing the way we view old age and elderly people, we won’t be able to solve discrimination. And that’s the most difficult thing to change. That’s why we chose to address the general public by showing emotions and telling stories in the hope that people will realise that yes, old age can be lived in a positive way. We are big believers in citizen action at the local level. We can deal with questions of old age if we take the time to meet in our neighbourhoods and in our cities. Fortunately, we have models for creating such encounters. In Germany, for example, intergenerational places of proximity help to bring generations together. In the 1970s, a single mother founded an intergenerational house to fight against isolation. The house is managed on a voluntary basis and has become a vital meeting place for young and old people from the same neighbourhood. Based on the exchange of knowledge, mutual aid and proximity, it now attracts nearly 600 people every day and has been replicated throughout many German cities. Now that do-it-yourself culture is on the rise, young people have a desire to learn. This is a good thing because older people have a lot to pass on. We really believe that this kind of approach can bring the generations together and give meaning to old age.

Since the launch of your project three years ago, have you seen a change in the way people think about old age? Are we experiencing a revolution of the elderly?

JM: I find that people are talking a lot more than they used to about issues of dependency, ageism and discrimination. When we created our project three years ago, these issues were discussed much less. But there is still a lot to be done. We are experiencing unprecedented ageing of the population. People didn’t used to have a whole period of life after leaving the workforce and older people didn’t have to think about their role in society. But as life expectancy increases, these questions are now being asked and we need to find answers in order to make this period of life a full one. There’s a lot to figure out and senior citizens shouldn’t be excluded from these discussions because it is up to them to decide how they wish to grow old and we have to work together to find solutions. Only intergenerational work can encourage the emergence of new models so that we never again see elderly people dying alone in isolation.

This story has been translated from French.