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Issues of Aging Curated Video Collection

The Owl Awards For Video
In A Changing Society

by JOHN F. dos SANTOS, Ph.D.

The Owl Awards For Video In A Changing Society

It is both interesting and instructive to look back as well as forward in connection with the National Media Owl Awards. The progress that has occurred in the mass media during the life of the program has been profound and in many ways, overwhelming. At the time that the program started in 1984, it was not yet obvious that the computer age with its avalanche of information would offer so much in the way of new levels of communication.

In the early and middle 1980s the strategy of using a national competition identifying, encouraging, and promoting more and better film and video materials related to important, neglected, and serious aging issues seemed to make a lot of sense. In a number of ways the Media Owl Awards took on a monumental task with great enthusiasm and relatively limited resources.

From the time of its conception by
Retirement Research Foundation (RRF) trustees William Kirby and the author in 1984, the goal of the mass media awards of the Foundation has been to recognize and encourage the production of an improved quantity and quality of media materials on issues of aging. The aim was to better inform the general public, professionals, paraprofessionals, and geriatric service personnel about the realities of aging and the problems of the aged. The basis for RRF's concerns was the lack of accurate and accessible information about the aged and the aging process, and especially practical facts regarding the biological, psychological and social aspects of later life-span development.

Clearly, the huge TV audiences and the emerging field of computer technology suggested incredible possibilities for national as well as international promotion, distribution, and exposition of accurate and informative aging-related media materials.

In early discussions the RRF Media Committee Board members had considered funding the production of aging-related films targeted at selected topics and issues within the broad fields of gerontology and geriatrics. However, the estimated production costs exceeded the funding that RRF was prepared to devote to the initiative. As an alternative to underwriting specific productions, it was decided to develop a national competition with modest prizes that would catalyze interest and encourage improvements in aging-related film and videotape materials. This strategy was intended to influence producers and increase productions across a broad spectrum of film and videotape categories:

  • television and theatrical fiction
  • television non-fiction
  • Independent works
  • training materials

Criteria for submissions included: 1. year of production, (no earlier than previous year); 2. clear and accurate aging content and focus; 3. high production quality. Selections were made in each category after an initial screening. Then a separate panel reviewed and made recommendations that, in turn, were passed on to a final jury. They then determined first, second, and honorable mention awards.

The final jury included: Retirement Research Foundation trustees who were also media committee members; foundation staff; producers; and aging and other relevant specialists. Their broad scope of expertise helped to determine the relative merits of the content, production, aesthetics, and importance of the films and videotapes being reviewed.

As the program evolved, some difficult questions arose. Choices had to be made, for instance, in cases where a production might achieve a high level of creativity and impressive photography or story line, but where factual content and/or accuracy, timeliness of the topic, or development of the theme presented, fell short of the overall criteria. Also, the presentation of some current and extremely urgent problem areas might contain poor filming and/or story development or inadequate coverage of the topic.

As might be expected, some productions that were submitted tended to be difficult to assign to only one of the pre-established categories. Also, within each category, the range of content varied a great deal from current and urgent topics to those that might be interesting but were also overworked or trivialized. The initial distribution of entry topics tended to cluster around productions dealing with Alzheimer's Disease and profiles of exemplary older persons whose lives were seen as role models for others. As the National Media Owl Award project evolved, an increased emphasis was placed on geriatric health, mental health, and the training of aging service personnel. Eventually, the TV and theatrical fiction category was excluded from the competition.

[Editor's note: Theatrical fiction awardees are not included in this consortium.]

As the variety of film and video submissions increased in the early years of the RRF media project, more sensitive, interesting, important, and neglected geriatric topics began to emerge. Some of these dealt with sexuality in the later years, gay and lesbian issues, alcoholism, mental health and loneliness problems in the elderly, and family trauma resulting from the emergence of Alzheimer's symptoms in a formerly loving, stable, and intelligent parent. Examples of the latter two topics include Joanne Woodward's moving portrayal in the movie I Remember Love of a developing Alzheimer's syndrome in a university professor of literature at the peak of her career. Another would be Geraldine Page's outstanding performance in The Trip to Bountiful. This story of an unhappy old woman living with a son and his wife depicts someone whose life is consumed with her burning desire to return to her small home town before she died.

Perhaps an extreme example of some of the "conflict" issues that arose for RRF judges in relation to the criteria of content, relevance, production, length of presentation, potential audience appeal, details, etc. is demonstrated in the 360-minute, four-part production on
Near Death. As a professional training series which provides a sometimes disturbing picture of the difficult decision-making process encountered in emergency rooms with actual terminal medical cases, each film in the series is both valuable and unique. Overall, the films are grimly realistic and drawn out far beyond the likely ability of most laymen to view the whole series. For trainees in medicine, nursing, allied health sciences, and family services, they could be invaluable as a vehicle for demonstration, discussion, and sensitization.

There were other entries that certainly were entertaining and amusing, positive and interesting, but had relatively little to say about the aged, the aging process, and attendant problems. Examples of these might include
Cookin' Up Profits on Wall Street, that also, unfortunately, included some misleading information, disclosed in the national press years later, Minnie Black's Gourd Band, and even Young at Heart (KPLC-TV), that was much more about a hobby than about aging.

On a more positive note, a number of winners brought to light some amazing personal success stories, as well as generally unknown tragedies and events. They also showed modern perspectives on historical events that made those events more understandable and interesting. Examples of these would be
The Legacy of Henry Viscardi, Jr., and Breaking Silence: The Story of the Sisters at DeSales Heights. Another very well done film entitled Riding the Rails dealt with old people who had been "hobos" in their earlier life and who later reflected on why they had followed the vagabond urge, what they had learned from it, and how their experiences were explained and evaluated in their old age.

After fourteen years of reviewing so many films and videotapes for the National Media Owl Awards, it is difficult to choose a select few as the very best. Some excellent older productions included among the winners were not available for distribution yet, and some outstanding productions dealt with topics, problems, and/or themes that were over-represented among the awards over the years. One interesting production,
The Work I've Done, presented many insights into the life styles, philosophy of life, and attitudes about work and retirement among blue-collar factory workers, but now is dated in terms of dress, events and even technical aspects and quality of the production.

To offer a collection without enough variety of content and viewer appeal would likely result in a lack of interest and utilization by the general public. However, based on the titles available for distribution to public libraries in the Library Media Project consortium list for VideoCuration, the following Owl Award winners would seem to provide an adequate balance of interest, quality, presentation, variety, and importance of content:

The successes of the Owl Media Award program appear to have been modest, but still worthwhile with respect to the recognition and encouragement provided for new and Independent producers. However, any claims of impact, significant or otherwise, on public opinions and attitudes were far beyond the resources and assessment capabilities of the RRF program.

Many sensitive and badly neglected topics of importance for a more complete appreciation and understanding of the existing and emerging challenges of an aging society sorely needed a more effective exposure. Better and broader distribution was needed. We recognize that this could be achieved only with some special assistance and support from the Retirement Research Foundation for increased publicity and a broader distribution of the Media Owl Award's winning films and videotapes.

Over the life of the program, special attention and concern was given to alerting the general public, as well as academic and geriatric service personnel, about the availability of the program's important, relevant, and informative winning productions. Included in this Retirement Research Foundation effort are:

  • the establishment of a collection of award winners that were made available for rental at the University of North Texas;
  • the current underwriting of the Library Media Project initiative; and
  • a website ( devoted solely to the National Media Owl Awards.

[Editor's note: Due to constant brokering of rights for film and video distribution, distributor name and address information will be most current at the Library Media Project website:]

The possibilities provided by the internet information explosion and customized targeted websites prompts the question as to how much more the national and even international impact of the program might be if it were established in 1999 instead of 1984. The Retirement Research Foundation web site in the past few years has attracted significant attention with respect to the Media Awards. As the individual and family concerns of a rapidly growing and "graying" (aging) society increases in the years immediately ahead, there is little doubt that the depth and breadth of those concerns will expand and intensify.

As this develops, available and relevant, accurate and useful information, and materials regarding aging and the problems of aging will be much sought out and used. It is encouraging as we look to and contemplate the future how mass communication may allow as yet unknown facts, problems, and issues related to aging and the aged, to be quickly and widely transmitted to everyone, whether the public, or specialized health care and geriatric service personnel. Information about neglected, ignored, and sensitive geriatric topics relating to problem areas such as suicide, polypharmacy, nursing-home patient abuse, and health care inadequacies may also be disseminated openly. An urgent need exists for increased public awareness of the lack of educational and training programs for geriatric health and mental-health care personnel.

In retrospect, one problem not fully anticipated by the Retirement Research Foundation in its Owl Award Project was the American tendency to deny the realities of aging, death, and dying. This phenomenon, along with our emphasis on youth, may well have made a sudden exposure to more realistic and troubling facts about aging unacceptable. To be sure, there are many good and encouraging things that can be said about the later years of life that deal with knowledge and wisdom, self-fulfillment and success. But there are the less pleasant and disturbing ones that are also a part of the total picture.

Obviously, the Retirement Research Foundation program planners could not have anticipated in the early 1980s that the media explosion would bring us so rapidly to where we are today. However, it would certainly have been their hope that the contribution and impetus of the National Media Owl Awards program, however modest, might have helped to facilitate the current expansion of our knowledge, understanding, and solutions to the problems of later life. @

From the Curator's Corner: Evaluating Content

Evaluation of content in films and videos on issues of aging is a difficult task even for experts in the field of gerontology/geriatrics. To begin with, there is not likely to be complete agreement, even among experts, about the amount, kind and level of detail that reasonably can be covered in a film or videotape that also considers the interest and/or sophistication of the viewer/audience. There are relatively few films or video tapes that have been developed primarily for specialized professional education and training. Much of what is available for professionals, paraprofessionals, health and mental health care personnel is more likely to be appropriate for "awareness raising," general background information, discussion groups, etc.

For the general public, family members friends of older persons, service personnel, civic and religious groups and other interested parties, the available title choices on the issues of aging are much larger in number and more varied. To develop a library collection based on specific content, there is probably no better recommendation for starters than a careful and complete personal viewing and evaluation, recognizing that evaluating the accuracy and depth of the content is likely to be quite difficult. Some less than superficial knowledge of the field and/or phenomenon being covered is essential for credible decisions and an argument for the curatorial approach used in this publication.

In evaluating a single production, several considerations might be employed. Some knowledge of the topic or content will certainly be helpful. Beyond that, factors such as length, organization and development of the topic or story line, clarity of presentation and explanations, lack of jargon, and quality of the production in terms of photography, sound, etc. should be taken into account. Clearly, the type and depth of the viewer interest and knowledge of the subject matter are important in choosing or recommending a given production, so that some estimate of those factors must be taken into account. In general, a long production [over an hour] that is not well organized, clearly presented and well produced in terms of light, sound and content is unlikely to be popular or useful. Know your audience.

In over forty years of consultation and invited lectures in the field of gerontological education, research and services, my own experience, which I have drawn upon both for the National Media Owl Awards and for VideoCuration, has repeatedly found a strong and consistent audience interest in several topics, including: [1] problems of working with the elderly and particularly elderly parents, [2] facts about the course and development of the total aging process including health, mental health, biological, psychological and social aspects, [3] family problems of the elderly, [4] death, dying and bereavement, and [5] cognitive [memory, intelligence, thought processes] changes and decline in later life. You will see examples of all of these topics among the titles selected in this publication.

In the absence of available local "expertise," and when the video core collection resources on issues of aging recommended in VideoCuration are exhausted, the best course to be suggested in evaluating content, and utility of films and videos would be, as previously suggested, to become as familiar as possible about the content. Then, as an intelligent, informed and interested critic, view the whole film or video, check on any confusing or questionable parts as best you can, and go with your overall impression. The only other suggestion is that, as a critical reviewer, you might be wise to consider comparisons to other related, familiar and available productions and the level of interest in the film or video topic based on expressed interest and requests from the public library clientele.

-- John F. dos Santos, Ph.D.

aging topics | a-z film list | links and resources | supplemental books
cinema classics DVD | visual arts | health | contact us | home

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