Growing up, many of us heard our mothers utter phrases like, “Respect the gray hairs,” and every variation of the instruction, but as we’ve matured in a culture that’s evolving rapidly in terms of technology and values, many of us have deemed our elders unable to keep up, and therefore obsolete. Sag Harbor filmmaker Robin Baker Leacock hopes to correct this unfair mindset with her heartwarming film Stella & Co.: A Romantic Musical Comedy Documentary About Aging, which offers a glimpse into the lives of her charismatic centenarian mother, Estelle “Stella” Craig, as well as her vivacious, quick-witted senior friends.
Stella & Co. is Leacock’s fourth documentary and fifth film total—preceded by It Girls (2002), A Passion for Giving (2009), I’ll Take Manhattan (2010) and Stella Is 95 (2013)—and features interviews with a diverse cast of colorful characters ranging in age from 75 to 105, who live in an assisted living facility in Florida. Each of the brilliant seniors shares unique stories and fascinating insights on aging, with plenty of humor, romance and music interwoven with the interviews. “It’s meant to be fun, uplifting and joyful,” Leacock assures those worried that her documentary is purely educational.
A proven and formidable filmmaker in her own right—as well as an author and artist—Leacock hails from an illustrious filmmaking family. Her husband, Robert Leacock, is a cinematographer known for the documentaries Catwalk and Looking for Richard, while his father is the late, legendary Richard Leacock, who pioneered cinema verité in the U.S. “He was very interested in being there—you’re in a place or a room with someone and you just disappear and let whatever unfolds unfold,” she notes of her father-in-law’s filmmaking style. “My film isn’t quite like that because I ask people questions and I’m really interested in their answers. And, of course, I’m in the film a little bit too, so mine is a different concept.”
With two of Leacock’s five films dedicated to Stella, saying she and her mother were close is quite the understatement. After Leacock’s father, Louis David Craig, died in 2000, she resolved to stay by her mother’s side in her advanced age. “I made a conscious decision not to abandon her, and when I look back at the last 17 years, it really was the focal point of my life. I now have a lot of my own time, but I cherish and love all the time that I spent with her,” she says, reminiscing about the memories they shared before Stella’s passing in February 2019, one month before turning 104.
In addition to living an incredibly long life, Stella achieved great success in whatever she set her mind to and enjoyed countless adventures—she had a radio show with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; created the World Adventure Tours travelogue series; published a national children’s magazine, Small Types; founded the Cinema 16 film festival; became president of the Toronto Women’s Variety Club; wrote seven books, five in her 100s; penned several plays published by Act II Studio; and raised three children. Ever the entrepreneur, she had even planned to start a new seniors-only website and YouTube channel before she passed.
“I thought she was a very inspiring person; I saw her as a role model,” Leacock says. “She made me laugh, she was a character, she was really opinionated politically and socially into her last months, so I was always inspired to pick up a camera and video her. I always told her she was a bit of a ham, and she always said that she’d never met a microphone she didn’t love.”
The goal of many of Leacock’s films is to give outspoken people a chance to speak to the masses, and Stella & Co. follows that mission. “The main reason I made this film is because I wanted my mother Stella’s voice to be heard and I wanted the voice of other seniors to be heard, because I think we tend to put seniors in a category which make them not like us, when in fact they are us,” Leacock says. “Older people are treasures, and we’re really the only culture that doesn’t see the value in them. Every Eastern culture and Indigenous people put older people front and center, and yet we tend to put them aside.”
The aspect of elders’ treatment in different cultures is of great importance to Leacock, and one she discusses in the documentary. “One of the opening lines in my film is, ‘In Earth-keeping cultures, each elder that dies is a library that burns.’ I believe that every life has a story and a rich history, and when any voice disappears it’s an irreplaceable presence. With age comes an incredible life, whatever form it takes, and that’s the library of experience—inside of each person is a whole universe unique to them.”
The most surprising thing Leacock learned during the filming and interview process was just how true the phrase, “You’re only as old as you feel,” rings with this particular group of seniors, and likely for millions of other seniors. “A lot of the people that I spoke to in the film all said that they felt young. In fact, one woman, Maria, said if she didn’t go around with a walker, she’d think she was 16. Most other people place themselves in their 20s and 30s,” Leacock notes. “They were all so very engaged, especially my mother Stella, being alive in the moment and very present!” In the spirit of being alive in the moment, Stella can be seen doing her fair share of flirting throughout the film, with Leacock adding that her mother had three boyfriends during that time.
“Making this film didn’t change my vision of older people—it was a chance to express one of my visions and to give voice to other people’s visions too,” Leacock adds. “Maybe we can look at them in a new way, and not judge them by their age but look at them as really full and accomplished people who’ve lived an incredible life.”
Learn more about Stella & Co.: A Romantic Musical Comedy Documentary About Aging and watch the full documentary on stelladocumentary.com.