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by Leah Roh
August 2nd, 2012

Want the inside scoop on the disturbing dark yet surprisingly sweet documentary The Patron Saints? Rooftop Films had the opportunity to speak with the directors, Melanie Shatzky and Brian Cassidy about their inspiration and the overarching message of the film. Both directors will also be in attendance for a Q & A at Rooftop’s screening August 4th at the Old American Can Factory, so if you have more questions that need to be answered, all hope is not lost! Tickets are now on sale so join us this Saturday!

Rooftop Films: By taking audiences inside the walls of a nursing home and documenting its inhabitants, you two boldly pursued a world that many of us know little about. What brought you two to this unique subject matter?

Melanie Shatzky & Brian Cassidy: We made this film out of an interest in its subject matter, but also because we want to use film, in this case non-fiction cinema, as a means of depicting our own personal fears and responses to aging, institutional living and the inevitability of death. We have no aspirations as journalists, but instead are looking to capture a more subjective portrait of life in its underexposed corners.

RF: In simply labeling the place that you filmed—nursing home, retirement home, institution—we tread lightly. Did you face any social criticism or ethical dilemmas in pursuing such a sensitive topic?

MS & BC: We have foremost found great acceptance and embrace for The Patron Saints from both casual viewers as well as those with first hand experience (those with parents in similar facilities, and even certain viewers with physical disabilities themselves.) Many people come and thank us after screenings for having depicted something that many would shy away from. Older people, in particular, seem to appreciate that younger people would be interested this area of life.

Of course when you deal head on with taboo subject matter, you are open to some degree of criticism from certain people. In our experience those who are critical, and they are in the minority, are those who themselves have the least tangible experience with this segment of the population and, in a way, unconsciously contribute to the further marginalization of the infirm and institutionalized elderly.

RF: This film is an emotional rollercoaster with twists of comedy as well as deeply saddening downturns. Was it intentional to provide audiences with some laughs in an expectedly somber atmosphere?

MS & BC: Laughter is such an important and varied emotional response. We are certainly aware of the humor within the context of The Patron Saints and move towards, rather than away from those moments. Sometimes the laughter within the film is a counterpoint to the sadness while other times, it is meant to further complicate it.

RF: Throughout, we hear bits of input from the not-too-old patient, Jim. Can you tell us a little bit about him? What prompted you to make him the narrator? What, in your opinion, does his commentary add to the film as a whole?

MS & BC: In a way, our narrator Jim is the most like the viewer. He is not yet of an age where he ‘belongs’ in a facility like the one seen in The Patron Saints. He is also still of sound mind and more than anyone else we encountered, has an acute understanding and awareness of those residents around him. While many of the residents are focused on their own needs and daily rituals, Jim simultaneously pays greater attention to those around him, while dealing with his own inner conflicts.

His observations and stories are often very funny, and he is so full of life and heart. One gets a sense that a certain amount of life force has been taken from him prematurely and this ultimately makes his situation more complex and melancholic. He is our poet-guide and also the central figure in the film.

RF: Likely easier to ask than to answer—was there an overarching primary message?

MS & BC: If there is anything to be taken away, it would be that confronting the unknown, or the unseen aspects of our humanity makes us better, compassionate people, more awake to the full spectrum of our living. The subjects in The Patron Saints are all of us and if we look down this tunnel together, we will recognize that there is not only solitude and sickness ahead, but also considerable tenderness and an abundance of love.

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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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