After having already gone through one major change — leaving home for a college dorm — Andrew Jenks thought it’d be interesting to experience another one of life’s major transitions.
Still just 19 at the time, Jenks checked himself into a retirement community two summers ago to see what it was like for the ever-increasing senior population in this country that can’t quite fend for themselves. The result of his summer-long stay at Harbor Place in Port St. Lucie, Fla., is an 88-minute film documenting his experience living with people old enough to be his grandparents. “Andrew Jenks: Room 335” will be televised at 7 tonight on the Cinemax movie network.
“We went into it not expecting too much, hoping some parents might watch it and not walk out of the room, and if it got screened at one film festival that would be great,” said Jenks, who collaborated on the film with William Godel and Jonah Quickmire Pettigrew, two friends he met at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University as a college freshman. “But we ended up getting into more than a dozen film festivals and it caught the eye of [Home Box Office.] When we started out we just thought it’d be a good experience for us.”
Jenks grew up in Courtland Manor near Peekskill, and is the son of Bruce and Nancy Jenks. His mother is a 1971 graduate of Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake and his maternal grandfather, William Piper, was a long-time Glenville resident and General Electric engineer who died last year after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. Watching his grandfather’s health decline was what spurred Jenks to make his movie.
“My grandfather was going through a tough time, and it was hard to see the health of this wonderful man I had known all my life start to deteriorate,” said Jenks. “He worked at GE, played tennis nearly every day of his life, and suddenly he was having trouble remembering the basic things. At the same time, I was in my freshman year at Tisch and I was moving into a dorm with 300 18-year-olds I didn’t know. I wondered what it would be like for an older person to go through this type of transition, and I figured the best way to experience it was to live in an elder dormitory. Perhaps that might help me better understand the meaning of life.”
Finding a retirement community that would accept a 19-year-old, his two friends and a video camera wasn’t easy.
“Most of them thought I was joking, and many of them were curious, wondering why I wanted to do it,” said Jenks. “I called about a dozen assisted living facilities in New York and then I started trying Florida. My first question was, ‘Is there an age limit?’ And if I got past that, then I asked them about filming the whole experience. The main issue with most of the facilities was my age.”
Finally, Jenks got the response he wanted from Harbor Place.
“I was thrilled and thought it was a great idea, and I think most of our residents thought it was a pretty neat idea, too,” said Kathy Klack, director at Harbor Place. “The only hesitancy I had was making sure that our residents’ privacy wasn’t invaded, but Andrew and his crew were wonderful human beings. They became so involved with our residents and our staff, they became like family to us.”
Jenks agreed that he and his two friends were treated quite well at Harbor Place.
“Most of the residents seemed to enjoy our company and thought it was fun to have three 19-year-olds roaming around asking them questions with a camera,” said Jenks. “We pretty much filmed everything and just experienced their daily life. We played bingo, went swimming or hung out in the courtyard. Nail polishing was quite popular, not that I tried it.”
It may not sound like particularly exciting viewing to some, but “Andrew Jenks: Room 335” was a hit with the critics. Variety called it “a lovely and genuine account of generational understanding,” while the Herald Tribune in Florida said “it is almost inconceivable that this emotion-provoking, heartfelt, priceless documentary came out of a rookie 19-year-old college student.” It also drew rave reviews from film festivals in Phoenix, Santa Barbara, San Francisco and Edmonton. Film Festival TV called it “a captivating, must-see film.”
Praise from HBO
John Hoffman, vice president of HBO Documentaries, first heard of Jenks’ film when he read a review in Variety, following its appearance at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.
“We tracked Andrew down, he sent us the film, I watched it and fell in love with it,” said Hoffman. “It’s an unusually good accomplishment for any filmmaker, let alone a 19-year-old. It takes us into a world most of us don’t really know or understand, and there are people and scenes in this film that you just won’t forget. That’s what we dream about when we look for a movie.”
Hoffman feels Jenks’ film is a perfect example of cinema vérité, a style of documentary filmmaking that combines naturalistic techniques with cinematic devices of editing and camera work as well as staged set-ups.
“Although Andrew is a character in the film, he just lets life unfold in front of the camera,” said Hoffman. “He’s allowing things to happen, and there’s nothing gimmicky in the film. You get the idea that he and his two friends were a little naive about the project and were stepping into something a little above their heads and beyond what they were prepared for. That turns out to be true and that’s fine. There are people close to death in this movie. Those are scenes you’re not ever going to forget.”
The movie is in no way an indictment on Harbor Place or other facilities like them. Instead, Jenks points his finger at a culture that allows its older citizens to become irrelevant and forgotten.
“It was sad because a lot of these people had families that hardly ever visited,” said Jenks. “Some families never came, and many of these people had outlived all their friends and everyone else they knew. So, just like me going to college, they were put together with a bunch of strangers. One of the most rewarding parts for us is that we’ve had people come up to us and tell us how they volunteered to help the elderly facilities in their local community after having watched our movie. That made us feel good.”
WORKING ON NEXT FILM
Jenks’ film career has put his college studies on hold. He has not returned to NYU since completing his junior year next year. While he does plan on going back, he’s been busy working on his next film, a documentary on former major league baseball player and New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine and his experience working in Japan. Jenks and his crew have completed filming the movie and are now editing it. ESPN has already bought the film and will broadcast it sometime in April.
“We traveled around with Bobby and his team, and he was a real trouper,” said Jenks. “It’s a totally different culture over there, and to have three guys with a camera following around a professional baseball team with an American manager was pretty outlandish.”
Jenks said he never considered himself a movie buff, but he did spend much of his time growing up with a video camera in his hands.
“We traveled a lot when I was a kid, because my father worked for the United Nations. And when we went to different places, I always seemed to have a video camera,” said Jenks. “It became a natural part of how I did things. I would just shoot what I saw. I loved filming whatever it was that was going on. When I first had the idea of living in an elderly facility, the natural second step was to start thinking about filming it.”
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Categories: Life and Arts