Forty-five-year-old filmmaker Lucy Winer was in the midst of a virulent midlife crisis when she began filming 90-year-old Christine Burton, an independent-minded community organizer who, at the age of eighty, founded Golden Threads, a global networking service for lesbians over fifty. Golden Threads, an hour-long documentary directed and written by Lucy Winer and produced by Karen Eaton and Winer, affectionately profiles Burton’s unconventional life as it exuberantly overturns our most deeply rooted stereotypes and fears of aging. Playfully interweaving documentary and first-person diary entries, with quirky and inventive animation techniques, Golden Threads generates a groundbreaking, intergenerational dialogue about intimacy, life choices and what it means to grow old in America, at a time when the media commonly sentimentalizes, dismisses or altogether ignores the aging. POV, PBS’s award-winning showcase for independent non-fiction films, will broadcast Golden Threads nationally on June 8, 1999 at 10 PM ET (check local listings).
A former horse farmer, actress, businesswoman, college teacher and nun, Christine Burton was seventy two years old and increasingly lonely living in upstate New York when a lesbian networking service returned her application and check with a note: “Have you made a mistake about your date of birth? Nobody wants to meet lesbians older than 50.” Rather than admit defeat, Burton turned rejection into inspiration and launched Golden Threads several years later after turning 80, with the motto “You’re never too old to love or be loved.” Today, the group’s quarterly newsletter connects more than 1,600 women worldwide. Each summer, this unique organization holds a weekend-long celebration in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Golden Threads chronicles the group’s ninth annual weekend celebration, attended by lesbians from all over the country. With the irrepressible Burton presiding, the women “no one was looking for” gather to discuss the realities of growing old and to share their memories of 70 years of lesbian life. Smashing stereotypes of seniors as bland, sexless beings, the women meet, dance and flirt, thrilled to be surrounded by kindred spirits. Ruth Ellis, who at ninety six, the event’s oldest participant, takes a break from dancing to shoot pool in the bar and rib her opponent. Meanwhile, as Winer grapples with her own dread of aging, her wry, self-reflective musings provide a witty, bittersweet counterpoint to the weekend’s joyous communal spirit.
“Each one of us is a thread in the fabric of humankind,” says Burton. “Each of us is necessary in our own way. If we reject anyone it’s like taking a thread out of the fabric — it weakens the fabric.” An inspiration to anyone who’s ever thought it was too late to tackle new challenges, Burton is living proof that growing old doesn’t have to mean losing your edge or giving in.
The film takes a serious turn when Burton suffers a massive stroke 24 hours after her victorious Provincetown weekend. Suddenly, this fiercely independent woman is left unable to walk, talk, read or write. Winer and her crew visit the ailing Burton in a nursing home, and what began as a “feel good” documentary about an inspirational elder now expands to include the harsh realities of illness, institutionalization and isolation that face so many older people in our society today.
Yet even in illness, Burton’s everyday heroism shines through. By the film’s end, Winer has survived her midlife crisis and Burton, spurred on by physical therapists and her own indomitable life force, is undergoing a remarkable rebirth. “The fear of growing old is a terrifying form of entrapment. You hit a certain age and you begin to feel less good about yourself,” says Winer. “But life can begin, open up and change at any age.”
“Christine teaches us that any kind of difficult situation can be seen as an opportunity to reinvent yourself,” adds Eaton. “She shows us that we all have the power — at eighteen or eighty — to transform our own lives and the lives of others.”