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Probably the biggest decision any documentarian has to make is whether to actually include themselves in their films. The presence or lack thereof of a good documentarian in any of their movies can be the tipping point in its success, being either a distraction or an integral part of the story. Think of Werner Herzog or Ken Burns, two who have found ways to make both sides work. With Leftovers, an often challenging film about a seriously under-appreciated problem, documentarian Seth Hancock puts himself directly into the story and because so, gives the film a unique identity.
There is a purposefully uncomfortable opening to Leftovers, in which people on the street are asked what they think about old people, the answers being, as expected, a mix of sterile, detached, and in one case, deeply out of touch. It’s a good start, one that makes no attempt to sugarcoat the next 80 minutes in which Hancock travels about the country exposing the realities of many elderly people who face a terrifying reality: they have no food. The numbers are staggering, an estimated 6 million elderly go without meals each day all over the country and outreach programs, including Meals on Wheels, struggle to serve them all. Why they this is happening is an much a misconception as aging itself.
Naturally, what we see is often difficult to watch, even as much of it is inspiring, however there is a revelation in this that many must suspect is happening but surely hope isn’t true. Hancock deftly weaves a substantial tapestry of stories that sets out to respond directly to the reactions of those people on the street at the start of the film, to uncover some truths about a small community of people who devote themselves to helping those who have need and educating those who don’t.
In so doing we start in one of the most affluent counties in the country and meet Carla Laemmle a woman over a hundred years old whose uncle founded Universal Studios and who had parts in a number of films in the Golden Age, including Dracula. She lives alone and welcomes Meals on Wheels, claiming it gives her reason to live. She is just one of many in the film we meet who are in the same situation, from the wealthiest cities in California to the poorest in Kentucky, and Hancock ever-so-endearingly connects them all, as well as the dedicated members of programs who contribute so much of their time to preparing, packaging and delivering quality food and services.
Through it all there is Hancock who wisely and quiet effectively ingratiates himself into the experience, being the narrator and questioner but above all a witness, admitting from the start that this was a project he was asked to do, one he had no interest in prior and had not thought about at all. This somehow makes him all the more identifiable, because truly, for most of us, the prospect of aging is already one we work to avoid but to age and be hungry is something we can’t imagine. Hancock discovers not only are there people who face this, but there are many who, with odds so stacked against them, still stand with great pride and humility, some even donating their own precious incomes and time to helping others. It moves Hancock to great depths of emotion, clearly shedding layers of humility he himself feels burdened by. It will move you as well.
Leftovers is a not a big budget production but is very well made and informed, one that offers insight into the issue and even solutions that are working in local markets. It makes a strong case to rethink the adoptive attitude of individualism that has long held firm in the United States and find community again not just from town to town but across the country. At it’s start, we feel a kind of kinship with those on the street but by its end, we are far, far removed.
Leftovers is coming to VOD 7/11 and 8/29 on DVD.
Movie description: Leftovers is a 2017 documentary about a food crisis in the United States many are not aware of, by a population perhaps even more forget.
Director(s): Seth Hancock
Actor(s): Seth Hancock, Shane Bernardo, Beverly Berry