Autumn Gold tells the life-affirming stories of five senior athletes who all have one goal: to take part in the track and field section of the World Masters Championships 2009 in Finland. The biggest challenge they face is their age: all five athletes are between 82 and 100 years old.
Jan Tenhaven is a freelance writer and director for German public television and a lecturer at the Electronic Media School in Potsdam-Babelsberg. He started his journalistic career as a reporter and free-lance writer for the daily newspaper WAZ and the weekly paper DIE ZEIT, as well as on the editorial staff of various German broadcasters. From 1998 to 2001, Tenhaven was a television correspondent and bureau chief of APM Media in London and a director for London International Television (LITV).
Bijan Tehrani: What inspired you to make the Autumn Gold?
Jan Tenhaven: When I first came across these track and field championships for very old people, I expected some freak show and was quite skeptical. However, when I went there I was absolutely intrigued by these wonderful people. They were full of energy, full of live – although they were 80, 90 or 100 years old and they get slower every year. But they never despair; they fight and still have goals. I realized that my concept of old people was based on prejudgments. There is no such thing as “old people”, it’s a very heterogeneous group and there are some truly amazing old people that make many younger one look very old. I really wanted for a change to focus on that aspect and wanted to make a positive and life-affirming film about old people.
Bijan: In the west old people are considered to be “used people” that their productivity i date has expired, how Autumn Gold helps to change this view?
JT: We simply took a closer look. There is those scene of a 100 year old disc thrower in our film that walks onto the field with a walking aid and has trouble to keep his balance. In a short news piece, you would just see a very old man and it would look a bit ridiculous or sad. But we show the full story behind that, how he fought to travel to the championships, how hard he worked to fulfill his dream. And suddenly he becomes a very complex person – and a hero. Also, all our protagonists had an extremely good sense of humor. The great thing about these very old athletes is that they do not have to pretend anything; they don’t have to prove anything to others anymore – just to themselves. That makes them great sportsmen and real human beings.
BT: How challenging was making this film?
JT: The casting process took me over a year. But once I had found our characters, the shooting was relatively easy as these people quickly forgot about the presence of the camera. The biggest challenge probably was to stay in touch with them – they live in five different countries and they do not use cellphone or email. So I had to writ them letters and wait for replies, quite an experience!
BT: How was your relationship and interaction with the five athletes in your film?
JT: I have now five new grandparents! We have become close friends and I fear the moment when I have to attend the first funeral that can happen any time. We had a good time during our shooting together. I always brought them chocolate and was amazed how much these athletes liked them (they did not share them with me, sadly). They also drink sherry and like good food – so no ascetic lifestyle. I liked that very much. These people know how to enjoy life.
BT: How did you come up with the visual style of the film?
JT: Most parts of the film are shot and edited very straightforward. I was very anxious not to over direct the film as all five protagonists are such strong characters by themselves. I just wanted to give them space. However, in the last chapter of the film, at the world championships, we used a super slow motion camera to really celebrate the moments the triumph when they jump, throw disc or run. These shots might remind the the Leni Riefenstahl look. And I like the idea of showing very old, wrinkled people that way. They are not handsome in a usual sense and their bodies are far from being perfect, but to me they are beautiful in a much larger sense.
BT: What has been the reaction of the five gentlemen in your film after watching it for the first time and what has been reaction of the elderly audiences to the film?
JT: Our five heroes liked it a lot! I was nervous if they liked the sense of humor the film has, but it was more than OK with them. In fact they were very proud that somebody made the effort to show their achievements and their life on the big screen. Jiri the Czech high jumper joined me on some film festivals and he didn’t get tired of watching the film again and again. But he still said it’s better than any gold medal.
Elderly audience aso liked the film very much because we had shown such a positive picture of old people. The best reactions however was what I received from young people. They laughed, cried and were deeply moved. Probably the film gives them a new perspective – a new and very positive concept of aging.
BT: Please tell us about your future projects.
JT: Old people again – a 90 minute portray of the English Queen, but that will be for television. As far as my new projects for the big screen are concerned, they are still secrets.