We are Los Angeles-based filmmakers whose collective body of work has garnered an Emmy and numerous film festival prizes. Our film, Nine to Ninety, is a 29-minute character-driven documentary about a family coming together at a crossroads.
A few years ago, Juli’s mother called and said she was considering bringing Phyllis, Juli’s grandmother, to live with her on the East Coast. Juli was taken aback by the fact that this meant possibly splitting up her grandparents after 62 years of marriage. We didn’t know what was going to happen but felt that something important was going to be revealed and decided to document the journey in a film.
Once we started, we realized that Juli’s grandmother Phyllis was the heart of the story. A 4’10” woman with a fourth-grade education, Phyllis was a charming and plainspoken firecracker. Though talking about death is not a strong part of American culture, Phyllis was not afraid to confront the issue head on. She was actively engaged in trying to make very difficult decisions about her life—a life deeply entwined with that of her husband Joe and the lives of their younger family members. She faced the deepest questions of love, responsibility, burden, loss, and grace in her own way. As the matriarch of her family, she brought an emotional-spiritual intelligence that allowed her to lead them in a process of saying goodbye. She saw, in fact, that sometimes the best way to say “I love you” is to say “goodbye.”
Talking about death is taboo for many people in this country. Over 90% of people say they want to have these kinds of conversations, but only 23% have. When we screen the film, people often come up to us immediately afterwards wanting to share their personal stories. Many also say that it’s inspired them to call their parent or loved one. It has made the conversation around aging less scary and more personal. We were able to achieve our larger goals: to encourage others to start the necessary conversations in their own families about end-of-life care, death, and caretaking; to envision the society we want for ourselves, our families, and caregivers as we grow older; and to demand and contribute to a sea change of policies, resources, and support to enable all of us to age with dignity.