They say New York is the city that never sleeps, and in the heart of artist-run residential community Westbeth - located on the outskirts of the West Village - it’s easy to believe. For some of the older LGBTQIA+ residents who moved in during the swinging sixties, Westbeth has become a sort of de facto old folks home. Taking advantage of its rent controlled, live-in studios as they pursue their respective creative practices, the spirit of artistic invention is still very much wide awake.
Melbourne-based documentary filmmaker Rohan Spong first encountered this inspirational enclave through pianist and activist Mimi Stern-Wolfe. A colourful character, Spong's 2011 doco All The Way Through Evening detailed her efforts to honour the work of queer composers lost during the HIV/AIDS crisis. Becoming firm friends, they were enjoying a brittle winter’s day of gallery hopping around Manhattan and wound up at Westbeth’s art space, predominantly because it had a long bar heater ideal for warming numb bums.
“We wandered into the residents’ annual gala show and I just felt like it was such a beautiful, colourful space full of really vibrant people and was curious about what the building was, how it had come to be and who lived there,” Spong says.
Instantly smitten, he knew he had found the perfect people to feature in his next doco. Winter at Westbeth debuted at the Sydney Film Festival and will relocate to the Melbourne International Film Festival this weekend before a theatrical release set for later in the year. In a similar vein to Bill Cunningham: New York, Iris and Advanced Style, Winter at Westbeth is a timely reminder that, despite mainstream media regularly ignoring their voices, we should not write off our elders.
“I think we assume that once people get past a certain age, what it is that they’re recording is not going to be relevant, but in fact it’s more relevant,” Spong says. “It’s about the final chapters of life and what to expect, what to think about as one moves forward.”
As a gay man, Spong was particularly drawn to the stories of queer artists Ilsa Gilbert, an 81-year-old poet and second-wave feminist, and Dudley Williams, a 75-year-old trailblazing African-American dancer and choreographer. They are joined by Edith Stephen, a former dancer and member of the '60s avant-garde movement The Happening who has, in her 90s, taught herself filmmaking.
Williams teaches dance classes for both older residents and the next generation on Westbeth’s top floor - a light-filled dance studio with grand arched windows - passing on the wisdom he accrued while performing for the likes of industry luminaries like Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey. Ilsa, a cancer survivor, is a regular attendee at spoken word events whose poetry Spong says has a lot to teach us.
“As an artist, you have a lot of those kind of dark midnights of the soul where you worry that maybe your work isn’t a worthwhile pursuit, but seeing the people of Westbeth and the way that they have managed to continue their art right up until the end is incredibly inspiring.”
As well as giving back through dance and the written word, Isla, Dudley and Edith are, and have always been, activists much like Stern-Wolfe, campaigning across issues including queer rights, gender, racial and age equality. “They’re not just sitting in armchairs, they’re still very much participating in the culture they live in,” Spong says. “Creativity keeps them questioning and challenging, rather than sitting at home and watching it on TV.”
Spong notes that equality is an ongoing battle and one that can’t be taken for granted. “It’s such an overused quote but if a culture is unaware of its past, it’s doomed to repeat its mistakes," he says. "There’s a moment in the film where Dudley is sitting on his couch talking about his contribution to the civil rights movement through dance, but he also ruefully acknowledges that we still live in a society where people of colour are at much greater risk of persecution.”
We have a lot to learn from the passionate engagement of Westbeth’s residents, not to mention their pride. “The queer characters in the film were open about their sexuality at a time when it was unsafe to be, and that’s incredibly admirable and has paved the way for people like myself to feel some semblance of confidence in the world," says Sprong. "Spending the year with them has definitely made me more focused and really taught me some lessons about why it is we make art and why we record our stories.”
Catch Winter at Westbeth at MIFF.