According to a recent report, Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe. The problem has grown to such an extent that it’s now regarded as a major public health issue. The Age of Loneliness, a new film from Scottish documentary maker Sue Bourne, examines this epidemic through the eyes of lonely people of all ages. As Bourne explains: “I noticed last year that there were all these headlines about the age of loneliness, the silent epidemic, one in four of us living alone. What interested me was that there’s something changing in society, and this wasn’t just about old people. It’s Zeitgeisty because it’s effecting so many people.”
It’s little wonder that Bourne was attracted to the subject. Hailed as one of Britain’s finest documentarians, she deals in compassionate studies of human nature and contemporary society, told with sensitivity and humour. Over the years she’s tackled a wide array of subjects including birth, death, marriage and, in a film typical of her intimate yet universal approach, her own mother’s Alzheimer’s.
Without recourse to finger-wagging, her “little personal films”, as she calls them, are designed to prompt discussion. “I choose subjects that I think will strike a chord with people,” she says, “and I just smelled that loneliness was topical, that people are feeling lonely and are really scared of being alone, of not being loved and nobody caring for them. We’re more and more disconnected as a society.”
However, dealing with the subject of loneliness proved inherently challenging. “Nobody really wants to talk about it or admit that they’re lonely,” says Bourne, who eventually chose 14 participants from an initial long-list of 500. “A lot of lonely people are very difficult to get to, because by their very nature they don’t get help and they’re tucked away.”
So how did she find them? “We went through charities, the internet, social media, whatever. And once you get to these people you can tell quite quickly whether or not it’s going to work, but you can’t say, ‘Oh, you’re not right for the film, bye!’ These are lonely people, and the one thing they want to do is talk. So it meant we had to invest a huge amount of gentleness and care, because even if they weren’t right for the film they deserved to be treated properly.”
In this cynical age of exploitative media, it’s comforting to note that Bourne is “terribly careful” when handling her subjects. “I have to protect them,” she says, “because obviously nowadays people quite like going on telly. I’m giving them a voice and they often want to be heard, but sometimes I don’t think they’d be able to deal with it. They’re too vulnerable to be on television.”
In The Age of Loneliness she speaks to elderly people who live alone following the death of a spouse – Olive, an articulate centenarian, only lost her husband five years ago – as well as younger people struggling under isolated circumstances.
“I wanted a voice from every decade,” she says, “and I had a list of types. I knew I wanted someone young, a mother at home, a divorcee, we had to include mental health issues. The film is a sum of parts rather than individual pieces, and I really want people to understand the range and scale of it. It can happen to any of us at any point in our lives for any number of different reasons.” The often heartbreaking candour of their contributions is testament to their bravery and Bourne’s skill as an empathetic interviewer. In one particularly touching scene, a housebound man suffering from depression and anxiety reveals one of his reasons for appearing in the film: he just wanted someone to talk to.
However, despite the sombre subject matter, Bourne’s film isn’t entirely downbeat. “I didn’t want to make a film that was full of lonely, miserable people sitting at home moaning, because why would you want to watch that?” she smiles. “I’ve decided as I go on that I want to make films that are hopeful, but I struggled with this because it’s a much tougher subject. But as much as I could I tried to offer glimmers of hope, so it includes people who are either doing something themselves to alleviate loneliness, or something was being done to help them from the outside world.”
As she discovered while making The Age of Loneliness, “There is this wonderful army of volunteers out there at the end of the phone making cups of tea, befriending services, mental health support groups. Little things make a huge difference.”
This important, tender film will hopefully be no exception.
• The Age of Loneliness airs on 7 January on BBC One at 10:35pm. More information about the films of Sue Bourne can be found at: www.wellparkproductions.com