Sari Gilman has been editing other people's documentaries for 15 years. Last year, she made one of her own. An attentive group portrait of five people living at a Florida retirement resort, Kings Point marks an impressive debut, not least because it earned its maker a nomination for an Academy Award. The film itself seems innately modest, just half an hour long and neither technically nor narratively showy. What distinguishes it, though, is Gilman's clear-eyed point of view. Kings Point isn't the place to look for reassuring bromides about riding off into the sunset of life. Gilman's subjects aren't just adorably wrinkly wisdom dispensers; they're people, with wounds and worries, who've lived long enough to speak very frankly about the hardships of human connection. "Everybody's a user here," one resident says. "Self-preservation is number one," says another. Gilman, who lives in San Francisco, spoke with us by phone recently about how the film came to be, what her Oscar nomination feels like, and where she hopes to take our cultural conversation about growing old.
How are you feeling?
A little overwhelmed. Just trying to enjoy it. There's a lot to do. I'm very excited, obviously. But it's not something that you think is going to happen.
Kings Point is your directorial debut. The answer to the question "why this" is at least partially revealed at the end of the film: You have a personal connection to the place. Even still, how did you decide this was the one?
I wish I could say that it was like a clear decision at some point. Believe it or not, I actually started on it, in a way, many years ago. When I was in college I started studying photography, and I took pictures down there. Then after college I took a 16-millimeter film class, and went down and made a short film project. I visited my grandmother, and I always thought, visually, the place was kind of stunning in its ugliness. Just so much concrete, and the parking lots, and all these identical units, with the strategically placed palm trees. Over the years, little by little, I realized: I guess I'm kind of making a film about this place. So it was a very organic thing that just kind of happened.
Aside from the nomination, how have things been going since you first put it out there?
I've been doing a lot of screenings and going around with the film. If there's one person in the crowd who asks me a question I've never heard, or is moved, that's so worth it. It's so funny: Everybody has a story that they want to tell. And that makes me happy.
We need to be having more open conversations, with our parents, with our children. There's so much emphasis on remaining independent, self-reliant, and active. There's pain in growing old, and nobody wants that, but I can't help thinking that if we saw and heard more of the hard stuff, it might help. There's a certain amount of shame, and that makes me really sad. We're hearing the positive stories, and I'm sure that's great and inspiring, but it makes people who don't have those experiences feel bad about themselves. My grandmother at one point asked me to tie her shoe, and she said, "I'm so disgusting." Where does disgusting come from? People need to be nicer to themselves.
The film does manage to pack a lot in to half an hour. Can you describe your method for figuring out the scope of this or any project?
I had planned on making a feature-length film. I had enough characters. In the edit room I decided to make it a short, and the tone was the reason why. I knew that I couldn't sustain the tone I wanted for more than half an hour. As a longer film with that kind of tone it would be relentless. It wasn't necessarily the most practical decision in terms of marketing. A 30-minute film is very difficult to program. But I can't worry about that now. I was very committed to the artistic end of it, and less concerned with the business side and getting it out there.
Up next: Watch the trailer for Kings Point.