Documentary Storytelling: Cyber Seniors

old-hands-keyboardThis Wednesday in my multimedia storytelling class we were assigned to write a blog post about a nonfiction documentary. I selected Cyber Seniors, a 2014 feature-length film. It is the story of a group of seniors that learn to use a computer and go online.

The documentary opens with the narrator’s grandparents, a smiling elderly couple, hunched over a tablet watching a video of a little brown-haired boy pretending to play piano. The narrator says learning to use the internet changed her grandparents’ lives and relationships with others. This prompted her sisters, Macaulee and Kascha Cassaday, to create a program to teach other seniors to use the internet. After this introductory information, in media res fashion the narrative jumps forward 10 months to a news report about a YouTube video contest created by a group of senior citizens. The clip features Shura, 88. This is the background information needed to understand the story that follows.

A retirement community is the setting where teenagers Macaulee, Kascha and some friends meet people who have stories to tell and a wish to connect with family and friends online. This theme of connecting is the heart of the story. The inability to use the internet is the conflict  It tugs at in the story. It tugs at the viewer’s heart when Shura, the protagonist, voices her fear she might be too old to learn. Complications faced by the learners include forgetting how to turn on the computer, forgetting passwords and forgetting answers to security questions. One woman greets her young mentor at the door, welcomes him in, introduces herself and then finally acknowledges she has forgotten why he is there.

Lessons continue on until the silver-haired students finally succeed. There are half a dozen or so learners and all are likeable, but Shura is the darling. Her enthusiasm, quick smile and easy laughter make the audience want to cheer her on. It is she who comes up with the idea of creating a YouTube video which spawns a video contest among the students that ultimately puts their new skills to a test.

The excitement and intensity while waiting results of the contest bring the story to a head. The climax and resolution occur almost simultaneously when the winner is announced. The golden age medalist is, of course, our endearing protagonist, Shura. Then comes the falling action. The seniors, relaxed and confident in their new skills, smile and talk about their experiences while someone jokingly mentions a rematch.

The narrative has an important subplot skillfully woven throughout that points back to the theme of connection. Near the beginning of the film, we learned the narrator’s grandfather has had cancer. Later his granddaughter Macaulee is also diagnosed. The two live far apart but spend time together online.  In the end, Macaulee’s cancer is in remission while the grandfather’s has returned. The narrator tells us the family will be there for him because, “The internet allows our family to function like families did in the good old days, when three generations lived in the same house. The only difference is our house is a virtual house.” Her statement brings a resolution to the smaller story, adds to the falling action of the larger, and brings the entire narrative full circle.

Sometimes documentaries are dry, filled with facts but lacking a clear structure.  Cyber Seniors not only informs but also persuades and entertains.  As Stewart Dunlop says in What Makes a Good Documentary Film?,“The audience must have an intellectual and emotional tie to the film. The audience must have a “pull” to get to the end of the film, not an excuse to get away from it.” With its endearing characters, easy to follow narrative arc and theme of connectedness, Cyber Seniors captivated my interest.  It has made me want to try a little harder to help my own aging father get online.


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