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What a Sweetheart
by Birgit Schrumpf

Carol is Marty’s sweetheart even if she is long past her twenties. Marty is no youngster either. Whilst watching the film Miss Senior Sweetheart (at the opening in Hamburg) they sit holding hands throughout the performance. When the lights come on and the audience shows its appreciation with rousing applause, Carol happily joins in. She is not only her husband Marty’s sweetheart but the "reigning queen" of the “Miss Senior Sweetheart” pageant and one of the main protagonists of the documentary by young German filmmaker Sabine Steyer.

Why would a 68-year-old lady be chosen as the winner of a beauty contest? Because this is a very special contest: one has to be over the age of 58 to join their ranks. The pageant was started in 1978 as a Lions Club fund raiser and has since become a national competition at Fall River, Massachusetts. It highlights the complexities of aging and beauty but also shows part of a very typical American culture, the unique attitude toward seniors.

Why would one even want to participate in a contest like this? Because the focus is not on beauty but it is about coming to terms with aging and the usual physical limitations. It shows the originality, discipline, friendship and honesty of the protagonists. Above all, it is about courage and keeping your good humour.

A sightseeing tour starts the days in Fall River, followed by a training programme for the final performance. At a question-and-answer interview behind closed doors the contestants have to convince the judges to be worthy of the title “Queen.” This year the ladies range in age from 62 to 84. Marion Gagnon, the pageant organizer, now in her 80s, says the competition is not cut-throat. “All our contestants say they look forward to coming to our pageant because we are an extended family, and everyone helps one another. The pageant shows the younger generation that we can have fun. We love to dance, sing, and go out - and we love to dress up.”

Carol Tuohy and her husband live on Virgin Islands in a house with a stunning view overlooking the bay. In her youth Carol took part in several beauty contests. She is a mother of two and fought breast cancer twice. Her unpretentious, positive attitude is very refreshing, and she charms everyone with her beaming smile. "Life is not measured by the breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away," she states.

Ruth Berkel comes from Puerto Rico, loves music and dance and is a bundle of energy. She takes out her castanets and starts performing. Her kind and quiet husband looks on admiringly in the background. He has already removed all his own trophies from the wall to make room for Ruth’s proud display of her various dancing awards.

Margarethe Tower drives around in a convertible, her short hair held together with a colourful scarf. She talks of her husband who died recently. He wanted her to participate in the pageant and she will do it just for him as he was convinced that she has a real talent. “And how are you to find out unless you do it?” Margaret puts on her red-dot plastic-nose and a lilac and green outfit and resolutely plays a cheerful song on her piano.

To have a glimpse into the life of these very different women, each with years of experience behind them - having overcome difficulties and heartaches - leaves the audience with respectful admiration and sympathy. What an uplifting and fun movie!

An interview with Sabine Steyer                    

Sabine Steyer, director, script writer and editor of her debut film Miss Senior Sweetheart is originally from Stade (near Hamburg). She studied with Wim Wenders and Gerd Roscher at the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg.

BS: It seems unusual for such a young person (28 years) to make a film about the impermanence of youth, and I am intrigued how you decided on the subject of aging.

SS: After I saw the World Art Photo Exhibition at Gruner + Jahr, Hamburg, I was fascinated by Magnus’ photos of old ladies with wrinkly skin dressed-up in glittery, colourful outfits. Apart from that, I seem to have an affinity for older women. There is always so much life experience behind each one, always a story to tell. After that, my research led me to the committee of the “Miss Senior Sweetheart” pageant.

BS: It requires a lot of responsibility and sensitivity to make a film about aging and beauty. How did you earn the trust of these women?

SS: I applied formally for permission with the committee and then continued an exchange by telephone and emails with the individual women. They were all very approachable and helpful.

BS: When did you have your first contact, and how long did you stay in the U.S.?

SS: Exactly one year ago, October 2008, we started from Germany and we took five weeks to complete filming.

BS: In which states did you film and did you have problems getting permission for the different locations?

SS: We filmed in Massachusetts, Florida and the Virgin Islands. It was not a problem to get permits, but luckily all the paperwork was handled by the production company credo:film.

BS: Why did you take only an all-women crew (Birgit Möller, camera / Zora Hagedorn, sound)?
SS: For cost reasons I wanted to keep the crew small and intimate. I also knew that we would be filming in private homes and small dressing rooms at the final contest. I also thought when interviewing elderly women, they might feel more comfortable with only females around them.

BS: Which films did you like during the Filmfest Hamburg?

SS: Unfortunately, I did not have much time to watch films but was very impressed with You Won’t Miss Me, especially as the film is directed by Ry Russo-Young, a woman of my age. She lives in New York and I live in Berlin.