A few years ago, Dallas-born filmmaker Jared Scheib was having lunch with his grandmother at her retirement community when a pair of residents walked by holding hands.
"Get a room," his grandmother jokingly said to them.
This compelled Scheib to burst out with "Maw-maw, are people still having sex here?"
His octogenarian grandmother's matter-of-fact response: "Just because you get old doesn't mean you have to lie down and die."
Most young people might have taken this anecdote and used it as an amusing party joke -- *!#! My Grandma Says. Instead, the 25-year-old Scheib -- who went to high school at Greenhill School in Addison and studied film production at the University of Southern California -- realized that he had stumbled upon an extraordinary, underexplored subject: the struggles of elderly people to live a full and vibrant life, even after society has forgotten them.
Nearly four months of shooting and more than a year of editing later, Scheib completed his debut documentary, The Mayor, which is one of the most affecting, least heralded titles screening as part of this weekend's Lone Star International Film Festival. (It will show at noon Saturday at the AMC Palace.) Filmed entirely at his grandmother's retirement community, Town Village North Dallas, the film focuses on a handful of 80-somethings, including Sam Berger, an upbeat Brooklyn transplant with a girlfriend nearly 30 years his junior. (He's "The Mayor" of the title.)
Yet instead of portraying these people as feeble-bodied victims waiting to die, Scheib shows us a group of vibrant, squabbling and, indeed, occasionally horny people who ask for no one's pity, and who speak frankly about their bodies and their sex lives. Berger is even willing to cop to his reputation as a "tail-chaser." ("If I got a hard-on, I'd jump just about anyone who's willing," he tells Scheib.)
"It's not just my peer group that has preconceived notions about the elderly," said Scheib, earlier this week, from Los Angeles, where he lives. "A lot of people, no matter their age, wondered why I was doing a film on old people. I just think, generally speaking, we tend to marginalize the elderly. It's easier to let them be in a retirement home and forget about the aging process."
Scheib began shooting the project in November 2008, initially focusing on nearly 30 members of the community. As principal photography continued, a number of "characters" emerged around whom he decided to build a feature-length documentary. Among the other people we meet in the film are Ceil Schwartz, a wisecracker whose own sexual urges have been redirected after 62 years of marriage ("I feel the desire for a good piece of cake more than anything else," she says), and Scheib's grandmother, Dorothy June Wyll, who movingly talks about her relationship with her late husband. (Wyll passed away last year, though Scheib says that he was able to show her the finished film before her death).
The Mayor isn't without flaws: Scheib never entirely decides if he wants to focus on Berger's story or on the workings of the retirement home, and so the center of the film ultimately feels a little fuzzy. But the young director also displays filmmaking gifts that belie his inexperience. (This is his first feature-length effort.) Without tipping into exploitation, he is able to portray his subjects at their most unguarded and emotionally naked. Without turning them into cutsey, cartoonish "old people," he also fully embraces their humor and charm.
"I found people who were living meaningful lives," Scheib explains. "And Sam epitomized this idea that you can still live a full, crazy and meaningful life, just like when you were younger."
The Mayor is having its North American premiere at the Lone Star Film Festival, after its world premiere this year at DocAviv, a documentary festival in Tel Aviv. The film was turned down by a number of higher-profile festivals, and though Scheib said they didn't share with him the reasons for its rejection, it is hard not to speculate. Do programmers find the topic of elderly people not sexy enough for "young" and "hip" film festival audiences? Is the very idea that The Mayor illustrates -- that we don't take elderly issues seriously and prefer to ignore them altogether -- the same reason that it hasn't been more widely embraced?
"There's all this negative, depressing stuff when we talk about people getting older," Scheib says. "But there's another side of life for old-age that I hope people can see."
Those other festivals' loss is clearly Fort Worth's gain. The Mayor is a true discovery of this year's Lone Star fest -- and a movie that deserves to a enjoy a long life beyond this weekend's screening.