By Laura Gabbert (Director) Capital Entertainment, 2005 Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on May 22nd 2007
Sunset Hall is a residential home for elderly radicals. Sunset Story is a short documentary focusing two women who live at the home: Irja and Lucille are best friends. Most of the residents have health problems, and many of them are slightly demented or seem less than fully aware of their surroundings. Irja and Lucille have their own illnesses, but they are both sharp and witty, and their friendship sustains them. They both have many strong opinions, and have devoted much of their lives to protesting social injustice. They continue to inquire about the world outside their home, and even go to protest meetings and events. We see them spend much of their time together interacting with other residents and the staff. Through the documentary, we get a strong sense of the positive atmosphere at Sunset Hall, and the value of elderly people interacting with each other. As both Irja and Lucille fight life-threatening conditions, we become especially connected to them, seeing them worry about each other. They are very natural in front of the camera, and talk often about their life histories. The one source of tension we see between them concerns Lucille's Jewish identity: she is emphatic that she is non-religious, and so is unenthusiastic about the Jewish rituals that Irja wants to know about, and she is also insistent that Irja cannot really understand what it was like to live through the Holocaust because Irja is not Jewish. Yet this difference between them shows how their friendship is strong enough they can just argue about such issues in a friendly way.
The DVD contains two commentaries, deleted and extended scenes, a couple of interviews with staff at Sunset Hall, and a film of the Q&A session after an early showing of the film. Both commentaries feature the director Laura Gabbert, but the first also has the two producers while the second has the editor and the cinematographer. They talk a great deal about the making of the film and the process of getting it into its final form, as well as their experiences of working with Irja and Lucille. While the commentaries don't contain any great revelations, they will be interesting to people who have been particularly struck by the film or to those who are interesting in the process of making an independent documentary.
Sunset Story is a charming work that gives an unusual and positive perspective on old age and residential homes. It does not shy away the difficult aspects of old age, yet it also shows how vibrant it is possible for old people to be. Of particular interest from a medical ethics perspective is Lucille's attitude toward the treatment of her cancer: she wants no heroic measures, and is quite content to have her life end. She even asks her doctor if he will help her die, but of course he refuses. It is more difficult for Irja to accept Lucille's illness and the fact of her impending death. The documentary could be very useful in teaching courses in medical ethics or death and dying.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.