In Unsyncable, six swimmers over the age of 60 – an eclectic group ranging from rookies to world champions – must push past physical, emotional and societal boundaries as they prepare to compete at the U.S. Masters Artistic Swimming Championships.
This inspirational documentary from Nova Scotia filmmaker Megan Wennberg dives into the world of artistic swimming (formerly known as synchronized swimming), from the perspective of older athletes. All between the ages of 63-82, the swimmers must persevere in the face of ageist assumptions and come together to compete as a team.
With all the negativity in our world around aging, it’s refreshing to see stories about people later in life embracing active lifestyles, finding connection and purpose, and simply continuing to do what they love.
“By jumping in the pool and pushing their limits every practice, Sue, Ellen, Cris, Monica, Luther and Joyce kick back against the expectation that getting older means slowing down and succumbing to our limitations. In a culture that abhors aging, we need more stories like theirs,” says Wennberg. “I am confident they will inspire audiences to see aging in a new light–not as something to dread, but as something to aspire to as we all ‘rage against the dying of the light’ in our own unique ways.”
We asked Wennberg about how Unsyncable came to be, her approach to storytelling, and her favourite memories with the swimmers.
Why were you compelled to make Unsyncable?
Producer Erin Oakes approached me about this doc in April 2020 while the world was in full lockdown. At the time, I had no idea seniors did synchronized swimming, but I felt it had the potential to be a very hopeful, inspiring story, and I was really craving that — both personally, and professionally. Once I started researching and finding the film’s characters, I was hooked. I have always loved watching synchronized swimming (now called artistic swimming), but it’s the characters I fell in love with, and I am so happy and honoured to get to share their stories at Hot Docs.
What was a discovery you made, over the course of this project? Something that perhaps shocked you or wowed you?
I was blown away, time and again, by the incredible passion, dedication, energy and athleticism of our characters. Synchro is such a difficult sport, and requires tremendous strength, flexibility, memory and teamwork to make routines come together. My jaw was regularly on the floor as we filmed — both at competitions, and practices alike.
What’s a lesson you learned while making Unsyncable?
I had heard the expression ‘if you don’t use it, you’re going to lose it’ before, but this doc hit it home for me in a whole new way. Seeing what these athletes are able to do into their 60s and well beyond is so inspiring, and even though I’ll probably never be half as fit as they are, they have made me contemplate aging in a whole new way — not as something to dread, but as something to aspire to.
How would you describe your approach to documentary film?
I put the characters and their stories first, and I spend time building relationships with everyone I film with, so that by the time we’re filming they’re comfortable being themselves. My goal is for most of the film to live in actuality scenes so that the audience feels like they are right there with the characters, experiencing things as they do. My long-time collaborator cinematographer Paul McCurdy is exceptionally gifted at capturing actuality — through some magic, he is able to simultaneously have a camera inches from a subject’s face, and not be there at all. And long-time editor Warren Jefferies is a delight to spend months in the edit with, exploring the story from all sides.
What conversations do you hope the film inspires?
I hope people leave the theatre (or wherever they watch it) excited to try something new, or to revisit something they once loved. I think doing things we’re passionate about, with people who share that passion, is one of the most rewarding things in life, and one of the greatest joys. And staying active is key, so I hope this film gets people not just talking about being more active, but really doing it — one step (or stroke, or bat or jump or dive…) at a time.
What do you love about Hot Docs?
I adore Hot Docs and even when I don’t have a film to submit I sometimes come to Toronto for a few days just to watch films and get inspired. They always have an incredible lineup, and while the films are the highlight for me, the parties are always fun, the Hot Docs team is amazing and I love meeting other documentary filmmakers from across Canada and around the world.
When you look back on this project a decade or two from now, what do you think will be your most vivid memory?
I hope I’ll remember special moments with each of our characters, as those were what moved me the most while we were filming. I also have some great and very funny memories with my crew. And I’ll remember the incredible turquoise of sunny California pool water. Editing those scenes in the middle of our Nova Scotia winter was transporting.
Unsyncable will have its world premiere on May 3 at the Hot Docs Film Festival, with an additional screening on May 5. You can also stream the documentary online, from May 5-9.