The Grown-ups interview: moving documentary casts Down’s syndrome in a new light
With films about disability prominent in this year’s LFF programme, critic Demetrios Matheou caught up with Maite Alberdi, the Chilean director of a powerful new documentary about adults with Down’s syndrome.
3 October 2017
Boy meets girl, they fall in love, their families oppose their romance. From Romeo and Juliet to contemporary soap opera, it’s one of the oldest storylines in the book. But with her new documentary The Grown-ups, the Chilean Maite Alberdi offers a new variation on the scenario that’s as revelatory as it is heartbreaking.
In a year when the LFF’s programming is highlighting different issues relating to disability, Alberdi’s film presents people with Down’s syndrome in a new light – not as disabled people, locked in the minds of children, but as adults with strong emotions, desperate for love and independence. As one of them states: “I want to live a normal life. I’ve never had that.”
The film follows four fortysomething ‘pupils’ of a Chilean private school for people with Down’s. Anita and Andres are the lovers; Ricardo is a conscientious chap who works as a carer with elderly people, in the hope of earning money for his own home; Rita is less mature, the only one of the quartet who does seem like a child.
Though the school encourages its older participants with a ‘conscious adults’ class, its actions are in a societal vacuum. Chilean law does not allow people with Down’s syndrome to marry without their families’ consent; and when Alberdi’s subjects work – in the school kitchens or elsewhere – it’s for payment that children wouldn’t accept as pocket money.
The director had the idea for the film while making her previous documentary, Tea Time (LFF, 2015), which followed a group of elderly female friends, including her grandmother, who had been meeting for monthly tea parties for over 60 years.
“In Tea Time my grandmother speaks all the time about her daughter – my aunt – who has Down’s syndrome. She’s very afraid of what will happen to her daughter when she dies,” Alberdi recalls.
“We have an understanding of Down’s syndrome as something that affects children. In Latin American countries everyone calls them Los ninõs, even when they’re in their 50s. So for me it became important to understand this disability in adults.
“I also wanted to view them in the way you do people in normal society. Theirs is a normal society in some ways. In my film you can identify the romantic, the womaniser, or the one who wants to have a job. They have goals and dreams, the same as adults everywhere.”
Thus prompted, the director started researching the condition: how people with Down’s live in different parts of the world, the Chilean legislation related to the disability and, in particular, life expectancy, which, because of developments in heart treatment in recent decades, has increased dramatically, from 25 to around 60.
Seeking this new generation of older Down’s sufferers, with the conflicts they experience, Alberdi settled on a private school that – unlike Chile’s state schools – allows pupils to stay into middle age. In the first instance, she spent six months alone in the school, with a small camera, mapping out her story, choosing her principal quartet, becoming a familiar figure on the site and winning the trust of the teachers, pupils and parents.
“It took a lot of time to be part of that world. But at least they got completely used to the camera,” she says. And that paved the way for her and her crew to shoot four days a week, for an entire year.
“My cameraman was always saying, ‘let's go to school,” she laughs. “There were days when we didn't shoot anything. There was a lot of work of waiting, with the camera, until things happen. But I'm convinced that reality is a cycle, and the things I saw in my research were going to happen again when we were shooting.”
They also had a very specific approach to composition. “I’ve been asked why the people in the film who don't have Down’s are out of focus. It’s because I really wanted to make the Down’s people the normal world, where you forget they have Down’s syndrome, you get used to their faces. And if you don't see other faces, then that is your world.”
The result is movingly bittersweet. It’s impossible not to feel for Anita, who is achingly tired of an entire lifetime spent at school, and pins all her happiness on an unlikely marriage; at the same time, there is much mirth, from Ricardo’s cheeky buying of votes when campaigning for school president, to Andres ladling Lothario charm and Rita’s awkward attempts to mimic the others’ romantic behaviour.
“I see the film as comedy and tragedy,” agrees Alberdi. “The narrative is dramatic, as their circumstances are so bad, but the day-by-day situations are funny. That's life. It’s not black and white.”
Ever since completing Tea Time, for which she filmed every monthly tea party for five years, Alberdi has continued to attend the gatherings – indeed, she’s been expected to. Since The Grown-ups, she’s worked on a campaign to change an article in Chile’s employment law that allows employers to pay people with mental disability less than minimum wage; and she’s offered some sly assistance to Anita and Andres’s clandestine attempts to remain together.
She smiles. “With the kind of documentaries I make, which involve spending so many years with each character, it’s like I have so many families now. I stay involved.”