At varying rates and in different ways, we are all growing older, marching toward a more fragile future and an inevitable demise. But is there a way to control the pace of aging, to delay the biological process playing out in our wrinkled faces, stooped shoulders and stiff joints?
A feature-length documentary written and directed by the head of the Edward H. Arnold Center for Confluent Media at the University of Miami — premiering Oct. 8 at UM’s Cosford Cinema — asks this question and many more in scenes that are both poignant and pointed.
Filmed over three years in a dozen countries, The Silver Mirror focuses on a seismic demographic shift affecting countries large and small. By the year 2050, the number of senior citizens on the planet is expected to almost triple, to about 2 billion. In the United States alone, an estimated 10,000 people turn 65 every day.
“We are talking about something very big,” says the film’s director, Ali Habashi, an adjunct professor in UM’s motion picture program, referring to the graying global population. “And we ask, how prepared are we? How are we going to deal with this phenomenon because it will change many things in our societies.”
By telling the individual stories of elderly from around the world, the film paints a painfully honest portrait of how different people and cultures manage aging. Among the most touching scenes are vignettes of seniors staring at their reflections in a silver mirror as they ruminate, in their own language, about what it means to grow old.
One woman, yearning for an end, muses, “It is too long. I have had enough.” But many are hopeful, smiling into the future.
The narration by Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress Blythe Danner is as poetic as the cinematography. The film features famous names, including poet Maya Angelou, 85, and UM President Donna Shalala, 72, as well as top international scholars.
Close-ups of battered faces and gnarled fingers are interspersed with sequences shot in the homes and gathering places of some of the world’s oldest citizens: master weavers in Japan, a six-generation Icelandic family whose patriarch is 104 and centenarians on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia among them.
The intent, Habashi says, is to draw a comprehensive, unflinching portrait of aging.
The Silver Mirror also reflects debate among biologists and ethicists about the challenges and societal impact of extending the human lifespan.
“Centenarians are the fastest growing demographic,” says Habashi, 42. “And 120 is absolutely possible.”
Some of the remarkable scientific discoveries he initially researched three years ago have been surpassed by even more astounding findings, he says.
“We are in a position to be the first generation in human history to understand and control the biological causes of aging. It’s not just about increasing the lifespan of humans but also extending their health span.”
There is an urgency in this film, an appeal for viewers to face what Habashi calls “that universal voice” within all of us that ponders the frailty and wisdom that come with age.
Habashi edited and co-directed the critically acclaimed 2008 documentary One Water, which examined the world’s water crisis. In The Silver Mirror as in One Water, he worked with UM cinematographer Ed Talavera, and both films were scored by UM composer Thomas M. Sleeper.
The Silver Mirror was produced with the support of the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation and UM’s Arsht Ethics Initiatives. In addition to the screening at UM, the documentary will be shown in Geneva at the headquarters of the World Health Organization and in New York at Columbia University.