fb-pixel Skip to main content
Arts in New England

Nathaniel Hansen

A documentarian ready to learn from his ‘Elders.’

Nathaniel Hansen. Joel Benjamin

AMONG THE MANY outstanding documentaries in the 2013 Independent Film Festival of Boston, Nathaniel Hansen’s The Elders stands out as both commonplace and remarkable. It consists of interviews with ordinary people, ranging in age from their 70s to their 90s, and confirms the truism that with old age comes wisdom — and a lot of great stories.

On a rainy morning in early April, I meet Hansen at a Dunkin’ Donuts not far from Emerson, where he earned a master’s in media arts and now teaches undergraduate film students. The 35-year-old father of two resembles a young Matthew Modine, and though he just returned from a 16-hour flight from Mumbai, he is relaxed and affable.


“I was there interviewing Malina Suliman, a 23-year-old Afghan woman who is a graffiti artist,” he says, noting the woman was in India to visit her hospitalized father, a victim of a suspected Taliban attack. “She’s trying to force people to think about women’s rights in Afghanistan. I have enough for a short piece, but I’d like to expand it if I can.”

This tendency to find ever-deeper stories is becoming a hallmark of Hansen’s work. After he raised $12,000 on Kickstarter (and got a matching grant from a nonprofit) for The Elders, the Newtonville resident asked his funders and others to direct him to people with interesting stories. He found so many that he had to drive 14,000 miles across the country just to interview them all. “I spent two and a half months on the road,” Hansen says, “and ended up interviewing 24 people in almost as many locations.”

Some of his subjects, Hansen adds, had so much to tell that they could have been featured in their own film — a Native American Vietnam War vet with PTSD, for example, who, after surviving a suicide attempt, turned to carpentry in search of peace of mind. “It was one of those interviews in which you say, well, that story is definitely going in. And then there would be another and another,” he says. “Story after story for three and a half hours. He was someone who had seen and done horrible things and was racked with guilt but was recovering from it in an artistic way.”


In his next project, Hansen is creating a portrait of a whole community on the north shore of Oahu, told through its residents. “I like to tell stories about extraordinary people who are doing ordinary things,” he says. “I’m captivated by the mundane moments of our lives, which, in aggregate, are really the most meaningful.”

>As part of the Independent Film Festival Boston, the Somerville Theatre hosts the world premiere of Hansen’s documentary feature The Elders This Sunday at 12:45 p.m. iffboston.org

Peter Keough, former film editor of The Boston Phoenix, is a frequent Globe contributor. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.