On Stanley Street in Liverpool, there sits a bronze statue of a young woman with a shopping bag at her side. A sign identifies her as Eleanor Rigby, the fictional subject of the eponymous 1966 Beatles song — the original plaque, now replaced, declared the statue was “dedicated to ‘All the Lonely People.’”
The same could be said for the latest documentary venture from filmmakers Stu Maddux and Joe Applebaum, which takes its title from the iconic lyric. The 70-minute film, premiering Thursday at an event at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, explores how eight subjects grapple with the effects of loneliness and social isolation — and the methods they’ve found to combat it.
Maddux and Applebaum — who made waves with their shot-in-Boston 2010 documentary “Gen Silent” about LGBT aging — began working on the film in 2018, before the pandemic brought the issue of social isolation to the forefront. The pair were almost done filming when COVID-19 struck, so they sent cameras to their subjects to shoot themselves as the pandemic took hold.
Though it made finishing the film more difficult, the pandemic illuminated the subject matter in an unprecedented way, Maddux said.
“People were kind of not thinking about this before the pandemic, and now, there’s not one person who hasn’t been touched by loneliness and isolation,” said Maddux, who lives in California’s Bay Area with Applebaum, who is also his husband. “There is an awareness that there never would have been without us all having to stay at home.”
The filmmakers traveled all over the world to shoot the film, including the Palmer/Wasilla area of Alaska, where lesbian couple Paula LaBreck and Andrea Richey reside. In the film, they describe being ostracized from their conservative community. When considering ways they could be less lonely, LaBreck says that they would need “to go back 20 years and make different decisions.”
“Do you think it’s too late now?” the interviewer later asks.
“For me, yes,” Richey responds.
And yet, the couple found SAGE Table, an organization that facilitates community meals for LGBT people. Another subject, Frank Buckley, a recent widow living in England, found camaraderie through the Men’s Shed — a workshop space for men to socialize and practice craftsmanship. Mary Hill, the sole caregiver for her disabled husband in the rural England town of Shropshire, finds joy in her weekly bus trip to the supermarket, where she says she can “meet people, see buildings, see life.”
“There are people on that bus system who just get on and ride around a circle,” Maddux said. “That’s their community room.”
Within all of the subjects, Maddux saw a common thread — loneliness “happens to all of us, regardless of whether we want to admit it or not,” he said. “If we haven’t been working on our friendships, really meaningful relationships, we can find ourselves in a cycle of loneliness.”
The filmmakers, however, found that some groups have the odds stacked against them.
“Any time somebody was othered, it was planting the seed for loneliness,” Maddux said. “We all have had that feeling of being the outsider in the room, and if you feel that a lot, you’re more prone to developing chronic loneliness.”
The impact of this sustained loneliness can be profound — not only emotionally, but physically. Feelings of social isolation in older adults has been found to be associated with a number of health issues, including an increased risk of premature death from all causes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With this film, Maddux said, he is hoping to show that there are ways to defy this crushing solitude. The proceeds from the Coolidge Corner event will go toward a national social impact campaign, as well as one-time grants to fund new and existing initiatives to assuage social isolation, said Candace Cramer, president and CEO of the Brookline assisted-living facility Goddard House, which is one of the event’s sponsors.
Cramer, who is also a co-chair of the committee organizing the premiere event, helped put together a guide of local community resources to accompany the film. “We’re hoping it sparks a conversation and people taking a step,” Cramer said.
Though the movie is being screened at Coolidge Corner Theatre only on Dec. 9, information about future screenings and hosting a viewing can be found on the film’s website.
Even with its lofty goals of alleviating social isolation the world around, the core of the documentary, Maddux said, is dismantling the taboo and shame surrounding loneliness.
“It’s ultimately about breaking the stigma and being able to say, ‘I’m lonely,’” he said. “If we can get people in audiences and communities to just feel OK saying that, then we’ve done our job.”
Dana Gerber can be reached at email@example.com