New Documentary Offers Advice for Thriving with Age

Carl Reiner, George Shapiro, Mel Brooks, and Norman Lear in If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast
Carl Reiner, George Shapiro, Mel Brooks, and Norman Lear in If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast, from HBO.

Popular media and culture celebrate youth. Soft news stories show us how to feel young and look young in 73 easy steps. Rates of cosmetic surgery increase each year. If 60 is the new 40 and 50 is the new 30, then 41 must be the new minimum drinking age. Time to get your new fake IDs, folks.

Of course, none of these ideas focus on actually staying young because reality and science fiction haven’t caught up to each other or the naked mole rat — yet.

But, a fascination exists when octogenarians, nonagenarians, and centenarians do, well, anything: dancing, running, writing, sky diving… Betty White continues acting in her 90s, starring most recently in Hot in Cleveland. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has developed a reputation for being a “badass” in her 80s as she continues to write strongly worded dissents and inspire jabot-ed Halloween costumes. And as Norman Lear complains in HBO’s new documentary If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast, people shouldn’t be surprised he can still touch his toes at age 93.

Directed by Danny Gold, If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast is a life-affirming and witty documentary that provides an elegant and positive way to think about aging with vitality. With the help of his nephew George Shapiro, Carl Reiner, 95, is our host in examining how people in their 90s not only live, but also thrive.

Ida Keeling took up running at age 67 to cope with her sons’ murders. Now 100, Keeling continues running and breaking records.
The documentary offers a series of portraits and interviews with nonagenarians and a couple centenarians. We meet 100-year-old Ida Keeling, who took up running after her sons’ murders to cope with depression. She was 67 at the time, and now she continues to break records with running at her age. Yoga expert Tao Porchon-Lynch, 97, learned to tango. Ray Olivere continues painting portraits, and Jim “Pee Wee” Martin continues sky diving and living in the house he built with his own hands.

The portraits and interviews also offer a who’s who in entertainment: Mel Brooks, Dick Van Dyke, Tony Bennett, Kirk Douglas, Stan Lee, Irving Fields, Betty White, Patricia Morison, and Harriett Thompson. All of them continue to engage life. Carl Reiner and Betty White write books. Tony Bennett still sings, and Irving Fields still writes songs and plays piano at a hotel. Harriett Thompson runs marathons.

Dan Buettner serves as the longevity expert in this documentary. He cites five keys to vitality:

  1. Physical fitness
  2. Cognitive awareness
  3. Life informed by passion and values
  4. Contribution
  5. Ongoing achievement

Reiner adds a sixth item to that list: A sense of humor. Along with all the stories, so many of them have jokes. So many jokes. Fyvush Finkel, 92, cracks, “Half of my life is gone already.” In a conversation with Betty White, Reiner says, “You don’t lose your interest in sex but you lose your power.” Even the title comes from a joke by Reiner, though it is thrown on its ear when Reiner sees an older picture of himself in the obit for Polly Bergen.

Rounding out this gentle documentary are a bouncy jazz soundtrack and animated bits from “The 2000 Year Old Man” sketch done by Reiner and Brooks in the 1960s.

Aging terrifies many of us, but it shouldn’t. While this documentary won’t undo the deeply held ideas about growing old, its light-hearted approach does offer a better way to think it.

Five Benefits of Social Listening for Bloggers

One of the strongest tools for blog writing is social listening. Social listening refers to tracking what companies, news media, influencers, bloggers, and others are saying about your blog’s topic or focus, your blog, and even you. Though generally used by corporations for brand management, social listening adapts easily to other content and website goals. Social listening offers many benefits for bloggers. Here are five to consider:

1. Keeping Current

A regular social listening habit keeps you updated on what’s happening in your content area, such as key events, hot topics, big debates, and deep changes. Keeping current helps you maintain fresh blog content and fresh perspectives even on old ideas. It also offers you an edge in that you avoid including outdated materials and ideas in your posts.

We live in an exciting time for documentary, with so many new technologies, releases, festivals, fundraisers, distributors, makers, and many others. I use social listening to learn about the new titles coming out, their critical reactions, the emerging debates, and the new technologies. Virtual reality has been a particularly enthusiastic and divisive subject, for example. I also hope to discover projects outside mainstream documentary cinema and the festival circuit.

2. Seeing Trends

Within all the information out there, patterns do emerge. Learning to spot what’s new, what’s just starting, and what’s fading will set your content apart. Seeing those patterns — and writing about them — gives you an edge over other bloggers who cover the information but not the bigger, changing picture.

Part of seeing trends is also learning to identify when an idea is really not a trend at all. One example that regularly comes up in documentary promotion is when a production claims to be the “first” at something — topic, approach, interview source, or something similar. While an unoriginal marketing point to begin with, a closer look often reveals others who have tried that very same thing.

3. Developing Expertise

Expertise is a process, not a product, and developing expertise is ongoing, not a destination. Social listening allows you to deepen your knowledge in your topic — whether you are just starting or have been engaging it for a long time. That continuing process helps in keeping new topics flowing and in developing new content directions, while at the same time allowing you to revisit ideas with new perspectives from time to time.

I have been studying and following documentary for more than 20 years, and I still learn something new or different every day about the field and its changes. For example, many new documentary organizations have started and flourished during these last 15 years. Looking at the Washington, D.C, area, Docs in Progress started in 2004 and became a not-for-profit in 2008, while Meridian Hill Pictures started in a basement in 2010. And I wouldn’t be able to finish this post if I started mentioning all of the new documentary festivals out there.

4. Identifying Connections

Blog writing can be a soapbox, or it can be part of a conversation. I approach blogging as a conversation, and a key part of that approach is identifying and developing connections. These connections might be other bloggers, experts, influencers, or organizations.

Learning about these connections gives you directions for people to follow on social media. You might learn about a new blog that you need to add to your social listening lineup. While these connections provide sources of knowledge, they also provide potential blog topics, such as with interviews, or even become potential blog contributors.

5. Honing Content

The best blogs have content unavailable elsewhere. Repeating the same listicle with the same angle adds a post, sure, but the post is largely forgettable. Honing content means finding holes in current discussions or gaps in the trends. It means addressing misconceptions or responding to changes.

A few years ago Kartemquin Films tweeted about losing its sales tax exemption because someone perceived their documentaries as “propaganda:”

A Tweet from Kartemquin Films
A Tweet from Kartemquin Films

The term “propaganda” has a long history within the documentary form. Today, unfortunately, the idea of “propaganda” has come to mean any documentary with a point of view someone disagrees with. Having taught persuasion and studied documentary, I saw an opportunity for a blog post commenting on the situation, which I wrote about here.

The five benefits of social listening listed here are far from the only ones, but regular social listening is still one of the strongest tools for building better blog content.

Navigating Violence and Alma’s Story in an Interactive Documemtary

The opening screen of Alma: A Tale of Violence
The opening screen of Alma: A Tale of Violence

In order to make interactive documentary reviews more focused and systematic, I will use the following outline: platform(s) used, story and structure, user role, navigation directions, navigation execution, and overall comments. Released first in 2011, Alma: A Tale of Violence represents my first application of this approach.

Alma: A Tale of Violence is an interactive documentary available online, on the iPad, and on Android. One of the earlier of the next generation of interactive documentaries, it tells the story of Alma, who joined a Guatemalan gang as a teen and managed to leave with her life as an adult. This review focuses on the web and iPad versions.

The primary story in Alma: A Tale of Violence belongs to Alma herself. In an almost 40-minute video interview, Alma recounts her childhood, gang initiation, gang life, and life thereafter. The interview frames Alma in medium and close-up shots, ensuring our identification with her, though it also offers cutaways to her tattoos and fidgeting hands. Interestingly enough, that framing hides the fact that Alma is now confined to wheelchair.

Alma’s story is harrowing. Alma explains how the gang offered acceptance, belonging, support, and purpose — things unavailable at home.

One price for that belonging, though, is a life of violence. As part of her initiation, Alma helped members kill a woman whom they had just raped. Another part of her initiation involved the choice between her own rape and being beaten. Alma chose the beating because she didn’t want to appear weak.

Another price for that belonging is a lack of freedom. The gang dictated its lower-ranked members’ activities, which often involved collecting protection fees and killing those who refused or couldn’t pay. Alma killed one person for this reason.

Though not explicitly articulated, a third price for that belonging is fear, particularly of the violence turning back on Alma herself. Alma left without permission for two years, and when she returned, she feared the gang’s retribution. This time, none came — they invited her back in. After becoming pregnant and suffering abusive relationships, Alma requested to leave the gang altogether. They beat her briefly, and she left the meeting thinking the situation fine among them. As she walked away, bullets flew. One struck her and left her paralyzed. The bounty still remains on her head.

While this interview plays, a secondary storyline appears above her. The upper “track,” for lack of a better word, offers a combination of still images, B-roll, archival images, sketches, and animations. Sometimes, the upper track offers a thematic connection to Alma’s recollections, such as the pictures of poor neighborhoods. Other times, the upper track depicts Alma’s recollections, such as the animated illustrations of her gang initiation or of a gang rape. Though nonetheless disturbing, the animations offer ways to show the violence without spectacle.

The Maras module from Alma: A Tale of Violence
The Maras module from Alma: A Tale of Violence
In addition to the video sequence, Alma features four information modules that offer background about Guatemala, maras, violence, and prevention. Each module appears like a slideshow, with images, statistics, and quotes. Some of the images also appear in upper track of Alma’s interview, but overall this part remains separate from it.

The integration of user, navigation, and narrative ensures a cohesive interactive documentary experience. Casting the user in a role helps with this integration. Alma, though, offers no particular role for its users. The directions only tell users how to access the content, which amounts mostly to swiping on the tablet or moving up and down with a mouse and to tapping or clicking on these respective devices.

The navigation in Alma is straightforward and largely similar between the web and iPad versions. The interview with Alma herself allows the expected starting and stopping of the video, as well as scrolling up to see the upper track and scrolling down to see Alma again. Users can choose not to switch between tracks as well. But, other than the up and down, start and pause, no other interactive features appear in the video.

The modules offer even fewer interactive features. An internal table of contents allows skipping through the modules’ information, or users can progress through each one sequentially, slide by slide, with a click or a tap.

While the navigation’s simplicity allows for easy access to all parts of this interactive documentary, its simplicity undermines the interactive documentary’s cohesiveness. The narrative disconnection between the video interview and the information modules also fails to help create a sense of unity. Overall, the interactive options here remain quite limited.

One of the sketches appearing in Alma: A Tale of Violence
One of the sketches appearing in Alma: A Tale of Violence
That said, Alma still tells a powerful story. One thing I greatly appreciated about this interactive documentary was the extended interview. Too often in contemporary documentary participants speak briefly, providing on-point information and focused emotion while revealing little about their character or personality. Alma’s screen time allows her to explain her backstory, her motivations, her fears, and her outcomes. The story proves difficult to tell (and hear, for that matter), and Alma breaks down at certain points. The camera continues rolling, but no voice or editing transition interrupts her thoughts.

Another thing I appreciated was the background information’s separation from Alma’s narrative. Balancing oral storytelling and factual details provides a difficult line to walk, with the facts often interrupting the flow of more personal details. The separation ensures a smoothness to Alma’s extended interview that might not be there otherwise.

11 Ways to Boost Your Blog

Note: This post is based on a presentation I gave to a women’s empowerment group on my campus recently. I thought the information might be useful to others, so I am posting it here.

Blogs offer a great way to boost your professional image, practice your writing skills, and raise your voice. This post offers 11 quick tips to help take your personal blog to the next level.

The Big Picture

We often think of blogs as soapboxes, places to vent and share our feelings and insights. To elevate your blog, think of it instead as a conversation. Several groups participate in this conversation: you, your readers, other blogs, news media, organizations, and even others beyond these groups. Asking yourself, “What am I going to contribute to this conversation?”, is an easier starting point than, “What am I going to write today?”

1. Choose your passion.

Write about something that interests you! Or, write about something that you want to learn more about. Readers respond more to this kind of energy than blog posts that come from elsewhere. And by going deep into one passion, you will continue to find inspiration to keep writing.

2. Engage in social listening.

Social listening means following conversations about your subject happening elsewhere online. Some ways to listen online:

  • Read the news about your passion
  • Read other blogs
  • Watch videos and vlogs
  • Seek relevant experts or brands
  • Check out Instagram or Snapchat stories
  • Follow relevant Facebook pages
  • Follow relevant hashtag campaigns

Look for patterns, themes, questions, or gaps in the discussions that you might address in your own blog posts.

3. Participate in online communities.

Online, 90 percent of people lurk. Become part of the other 10 percent, and say something that contributes to the conversation. For example,

  • Compliment a post
  • Answer a question
  • Reply to another comment
  • Ask a question

Go beyond the emoji response and actually write something. That said, avoid promoting your own blog in the comments in the other conversations. It’s like getting a commercial break in the middle your Netflix movie marathon.

4. Learn more about your audience.

Audiences like it when you take an interest in them. It also benefits you to learn more about them and their interests. Here are some ways of doing that:

  • Read the comments on your blog
  • Check profiles of your commenters
  • Check out their social media profiles
  • Do a short survey of their interests

5. Change up your blog post formats.

Blog posts can take so many different structures:

  • Interview another blogger
  • Product or service review
  • Offer instructions for doing something
  • Make a list (“Top 11 Ways to…”)
  • Respond to a reader’s question
  • Respond to another blog post
  • Compare options
  • Participate in a meme

This variety helps keep interest for audiences and you.

6. Tell your readers how the post benefits them in the first paragraph.

Online readers scan blogs more than read them. If the first paragraph fails to grab their attention, they will move on to something else. Tell them what is at stake as soon as possible; don’t make them wait for the big reveal.

7. Write a catchy, but not deceiving, headline.

The best headlines provide the subject and the incentive for reading the post, and they do so in a short sentence of 6-8 words. Remember that headlines on your blog posts appear on different social networking sites when they are shared, so avoid using inside jokes or cute phrases that won’t make sense of out context. Also avoid clickbait, or the headlines that read, “YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!” They turn off audiences, and some sites — even Facebook — prohibit certain phrasings that resemble clickbait.

8. Add 5-7 keywords to each post.

Keywords place your post in search engine results and connect your blog with other posts and articles that share the same keywords. In other words, they offer a way to connect with the conversation.

To determine some keywords, consider your post’s

  • Topic
  • Audience
  • Goal
  • Themes

Be careful not to go overboard with adding keywords.

9. Interact with your audience.

Audiences enjoy when bloggers connect with them and their comments. They also respect when you respond to criticisms gracefully and fairly. Interact with your audience by responding to their comments on

  • Your blog
  • Other blogs
  • Review sites like Amazon and Yelp
  • Other social networking sites

You also can build blog posts around their questions and comments. Be sure to tag the appropriate people when you do!

10. Set reasonable goals and stick to them.

Set a goal of writing a blog post on a certain schedule, such as one post per week or one post per two weeks. Set a goal that is workable within your current obligations and gets you writing on a regular basis. That regular writing practice will make writing blog posts easier and easier.

Another benefit is that regular posting appeals to audiences. It keeps them coming back to your blog and gives them something to look forward to.

11. Limit or balance “I” statements.

Blogs often are written in the first person, or with sentences that begin with “I.” Sometimes, every sentence begins with “I,” especially rants.

Remember that blog posts are as much about conversations and audiences as they are about their writers. Look for a balance between using “I” statements and other statements. Save the “I” for the points closest to your passion.