Autumn Gold (Herbstgold) (Director: Jan Tenhaven): The very definition of a crowd-pleaser, Autumn Gold was greeted with a standing ovation and thunderous applause at its world premiere screening. It’s a can’t-miss formula. Follow five athletes, all over 80 years of age, as they prepare for the World Masters Athletics Championships, held in 2009 in Lahti, Finland. Though it combines two very shopworn documentary elements (elderly subjects, a big competition), the film manages to transcend the formula by keeping its focus very much on the participants in the present and not delving too deeply into their past lives.
Our first introduction to each of the five athletes is to join them as they train. The first thing we realize is that these are all serious athletes, and that these games are not just about participation. There is real competition, and our subjects are seeking not only gold medals but world records. And most of these folks have been athletes for a very long time.
Youngest is Jiri Soukup, an 82-year-old high jumper from the Czech Republic. His ambition is to clear a height of 1 metre. Watching the scenes with his wife was charming. The best part of Jiri’s workouts is when he comes home afterwards to a soothing massage from his sweetheart. Though she worries about him injuring himself, she knows that he’s an athlete and that he won’t stop competing.
85-year-old Ilse Pleuger, from Germany, is a world-class shot putter, hoping to break the 6 metre barrier and win gold. The death of her beloved husband motivated her to train and compete even harder.
The ageless Italian Gabre Gabric, still glamourous and flexible, refuses to reveal her age. “What’s an old woman? Who’s supposed to be an old woman? Not me!” she says. She’s a veteran of the discus, and hoping to break 13 metres.
With a twinkle in his eye, 93-year-old sprinter Herbert Liedtke tells you he still has an eye for the ladies. And more than just an eye. Although the Stockholm native is training hard for the 100m dash, he’s still looking for a girlfriend, too.
Most miraculous of all is 100-year-old Austrian Alfred Proksch, still throwing the discus; that is, when he’s not painting nude women in his studio.
And though he’s not featured in the film, you will be awed by the incredible Italian Ugo Sansonetti. His appearance at the competition was nothing short of jaw-dropping for a variety of reasons.
Each of these characters could have carried a film by themselves. What they have in common is that they are all both literally and figuratively comfortable in their skins. They recognize that they are slowing down, that their bodies are no longer as efficient as they used to be. But they also recognize that what’s most important is their drive to compete, and by competing with athletes their own age, they can still win medals and achieve world records. Recognizing that they may only have a few years left has helped these athletes focus more intently on their short-term goals. It’s both touching and inspiring to see how each of them has lived and continues to live their life to the fullest.
Here is the Q&A with director Jan Tenhaven from after the screening, conducted by Hot Docs programmer Myrocia Watamaniuk: