As Etta Worthington’s fiftieth birthday approached, she found herself struggling to transform dread to optimism. Then, she says, the answer came to her. She would do fifty new things throughout her fiftieth year. What’s more, she would make a film chronicling her experience. The resulting documentary, 50 at 50 screens December 1st at The Illinois International Film Festival. Worthington spoke with Our Town about her film.
Our Town What inspired you to create 50 at 50?
Etta Worthington I was a little apprehensive about [my] birthday. I knew that I didn’t want my fiftieth year to be a downer, so I searched for something to make it positive. And then it came to me: I should do fifty new things in my fiftieth year. I considered writing a book about it, but something about that didn’t seem quite right. No, I wanted to do something more dynamic. I would record this journey with video and make a documentary about it. The first thing was to make a list. These were not things I had always wanted to do or thought I should do—not a bucket list. Instead, it was a list of things I hadn’t done and, for some reason or other, seemed interesting.
OT What surprised you about the project as it evolved?
ET How this simple idea took over my life, and in a way, redefined me. I have to confess: I was also surprised at how much time and energy it took. One of the things I have learned for sure is that it takes a great deal of stamina to be a filmmaker.And although this wasn’t on my list of 50 new things, making a feature was definitely a new thing for me. In fact, starting on the journey of making this was the start of a career change.
OT In what ways did the project take you out of your comfort zone?
ET For one, I am somewhat acrophobic, so I intentionally included some things that involved heights. People ask me, did you jump out of an airplane? I confess that I didn’t. I figured it might take me a year of therapy and I only had a year to shoot the film.
But I did go on a hot air balloon ride. I climbed up and patched my roof. I slid down a fire pole. Mortality figured into the film as well, even though I wanted this to be a very upbeat year. A close friend was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and so one of my new events in the year was taking her for chemo. There were some things that I did that were scary for me for other reasons. Getting a tattoo was one of those things. Also getting all my hair shaved off. Both of those I faced, wanting to back out—but when you have a camera person there ready to shoot—well, you don’t suddenly decide to go home.
OT You ended up breaking some taboos in the process, can you talk about that?
ET I grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist preacher’s family. Everything was sin. So when I started making a list, there were things I just hadn’t done. Initially, I hadn’t done them because it was forbidden. As an adult, either I wasn’t interested, or [wasn’t] comfortable with my lack of experience in those activities. Examples? Taking a dance lesson. When I was in school when they would teach dance in gym class, I would have to sit out and not participate because it was against our religious beliefs. So in the film I took a salsa class. And I was bad at it. I still am. I tell people I have a Baptist leg.
OT What change had the most lasting impact?
ET The biggest change that this film represents is the change of a career. I was a writer, and considered the literary world my home. And now I have made the transition to the film community, and that is how I define myself. I tell people I am a writer who lost confidence in language.
OT Who do you think will benefit from seeing your film?
ET Anyone in midlife Also, anyone for whom life seems a little too comfortable or a bit stale. Often, when I tell people about the film, I see them sort of drift way, and start making their own list of new things to do. And not just fifty year olds--younger as well as older people are intrigued.
50 at 50 shows December 1st at 9 a.m.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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