A FEW YEARS ago on the eve of retirement, I decided to try my hand at filmmaking. I should add that I had no training in film, just a sudden desire to see if I could do it. As it turned out, this was the start of a new vocation in documentary film and with it came a sense of renewal and growth.
As a college professor for 30 years, I had spent my time teaching and writing. I loved my academic career and even though grading or committee work sometimes felt like chores, the excitement of the classroom and publications sparked satisfaction. Yet as retirement got closer, these too began to feel overly familiar, a little less of a challenge, rather than something I wanted to continue on an occasional basis, as many retired academics do.
I had already begun shifting focus, in my case literally, since my imagination moved from words on the printed page to images on the screen.
That was because I had embarked on my first film. I had the good luck to know Daniel Cowen, a film major from one of my classes whose camera and editing skills were impressive. Once the course was over, I asked him to work with me. In contrast to the solitude of research, which for me had become enervating, I found the collaborative process energizing. And it was fun to be on the other side of the teacher/student dynamic, learning where to position the camera, the complexity of editing, and how to market a film once it is done. Interviewing quickly became my favorite part of the documentary process. I was hooked.
Since that first effort and now two years into retirement, I have co-founded, with Erickson Blakney, the True Delta Project, which produces documentaries and promotional videos on blues musicians in the Mississippi Delta. Daniel continued to be our cinematographer and editor. Interviewing musicians like “Super Chikan” Johnson, the late “T-Model” Ford, and up and coming “Kingfish Ingram” shed light on the blessings of creativity. It’s gratifying to be able to show their artistry and commitment to others. Most recently, I have been working with Washington, DC, based filmmaker Sam Hampton. We met at a film festival, admired each other’s films, and a new collaboration began.
Sometimes I hear from friends facing retirement that they worry about being bored, having too much time on their hands, or feeling unmoored once leaving their jobs. But then they often add what I think is the main reason behind their anxiety: they fear they are too old to learn something new.
My experience suggests it works in the opposite way. Shifting focus means learning different ways of thinking and seeing the world with fresh eyes. Learning something new actually, in fact, makes you feel younger.
Hear Lee’s 2014 interview with Sandi Klein here.