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‘A topic that resonates’: Documentary on loneliness brings people together at West Newton Cinema

The West Newton Cinema, where a screening of “All the Lonely People” brought together dozens of Newton residents June 15.Jesús Marrero Suárez

More than 130 people gathered together in the West Newton Cinema on June 15 to watch “All the Lonely People,” a documentary on loneliness and social isolation before and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Newton’s Department of Senior Services, together with the Council on Aging, organized the screening to engage the city’s senior community and raise awareness of the topic, said director Jayne Colino.

Before the film began, Colino asked the audience whether it was their first time in a movie theater in two years.

Many in the crowd raised their hands.

“It is a topic that resonates,” Colino later said in an interview. “We help people every day who live in an isolated way every single day of their lives. So I really wanted the greater community to listen to what this topic is and how it might play out on a day-to-day basis.”


In March 2020, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention urged adults 60 or older to stay at home and limit social interactions, as they were one of the groups most at risk for severe illness or death from COVID-19.

By that point, the effects of loneliness and social isolation on older adults was already a topic of conversation — over a third of US adults aged 45 and up reported feeling lonely in 2018, according to a survey by the American Association of Retired Persons.

“A lot of people got wicked lonely these last two-and-a-half years,” said Newtonville resident Betsy Louise Simmons moments before the screening. “I feel like we all need each other, all ages.”

Recent research has noted how communities are important in addressing social isolation.

A 2021 report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Healthy Places by Design, a nonprofit focused on wellbeing, issued five recommendations for creating a framework to build and nurture socially connected communities as a way of responding to the issue.


At the June 15 screening, Janet Seckel-Cerrotti, founder and executive director of Boston-based nonprofit FriendshipWorks, said her organization has a mission to reduce social isolation and increase the quality of life for older adults, adding it seeks to continue its partnership with Newton.

“We live a life of interdependence,” Seckel-Cerrotti said. “Most of us want to be there for someone else.”

The audience was lively, and at one point a teenager portrayed in the film spoke of her parents, describing them as “quite old, in their 50s.” The audience chuckled.

As a potential solution, the documentary highlighted “Happy to Chat” benches, which include a friendly sign on a bench inviting pedestrians to sit down and chat.

During a question-and-answer portion at the end of the event, an audience member said they would like to see the city bring these benches to Newton.

In response, Mayor Ruthanne Fuller asked the Cultural Development Office to look into making that happen, according to her spokesperson, Ellen Ishkanian.

The documentary provided several “life hacks” for coping with loneliness and social isolation, such as reaching out for support early, stepping out of one’s comfort zone, joining group-minded activities, and expressing gratitude.

Newton Upper Falls resident Emily Kaye said she resonated with a lot of scenes from the documentary, having felt “lonely and isolated” throughout the pandemic.

“It’s tragic, and I’m sad for other people and I’m sad for myself too,” Kaye said, adding that while she’s hesitant to believe many of the solutions presented in the film could be applied to her, she plans to put them into action nonetheless.


The screening was followed by an on-screen interview between Colino and the film’s producer, Joseph Applebaum, who video called from Atlanta.

Applebaum said he and the director of the film, Stu Maddux, hoped to reach communities “at a grassroots level,” through screenings at small independent theaters.

“That is where change is going to happen,” Applebaum said.

The June 15 screening was one of the largest audiences West Newton Cinema had seen since the start of the pandemic, said longtime owner David Bramante.

Applebaum said they decided on the documentary’s topic in 2019 after asking, via a survey, what audiences of their previous documentary believed was the next big, under-discussed issue, Applebaum said.

Respondents, more than 3,000 in all, Applebaum said, pointed to loneliness and isolation.

“We were shocked, we were absolutely shocked,” Applebaum said. “As we got into it, we realized, ‘Wow, this is big.’”

Wendy Haskell, a First Unitarian Universalist Society of Newton volunteer, said in an interview the screening provided a “collective community to discuss the issue.”

“I think we need more of these community conversations and a way to get elders in particular together to do this sharing,” Haskell said.

Cici Yu and Jesús Marrero Suárez can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.

More than 130 people gathered in the West Newton Cinema June 15 to watch a documentary, “All the Lonely People.” Jesús Marrero Suárez