The documentary Duty Free embraces mothers (it premieres today on Mother’s Day weekend) and shines a spotlight on the unjust ageism and economic instability experienced by American senior citizens. The film speaks softly, but carries a big activism stick.
The main story is Rebecca’s, an immigrant and single mother to two boys. Over a span of 50 years, she worked her way up to executive housekeeper status. During that time, she also cashed in her 401k to fund her son’s college education.
But, disaster struck when she was fired, without cause, at age 75. Suddenly, she was unemployed and almost destitute (she had just $600 in her bank account). Her son Sian-Pierre Regis explains in the film, “I knew I couldn’t give my mother a job,” but he hoped to give her something else: an opportunity to do all the things she was unable to do during her parenting and working years.
Rebecca wrote up a bucket list of sorts, her son got a Kickstarter campaign going, and the adventures of Duty Free began. The mother/son duo traveled the world, had adventures ranging from cow milking to sky diving, and delved into the complex issues of aging, security, and fairness. Duty Free is also a son’s tribute to his funny, lively, and loving mother.
Check out the movie trailer here, then meet the filmmaker and watch an exclusive clip from the film below.
One of the main points Regis makes in the movie is that his mother sacrificed so much for so long. For instance, one of her favorite bucket list items was a gravesite visit.
“ I think the activity that stuck with her in a profound way was visiting the grave of her sister, Elsie,” Regis tells Parentology. “She couldn’t make it to the funeral because she was working. That scene in the movie still gives me goosebumps. It puts up a mirror to the viewer and asks, ‘What are life’s moments that you’ve put to the side in favor of work? And was it all worth it in the end?’”
Duty Free Is a Chance for Activism
Aging can be harsh in America. Many age out of the workforce or, like Rebecca, are forced out. An estimated 25 million won’t have enough money to get through retirement. And while social security is a help, it hasn’t come close to keeping up with the cost of living; the average Social Security retirement benefit in June 2020 was about $1,514 a month, or about $18,170 a year.
That sum, Regis discovered when searching for an affordable Boston area apartment for his mom, barely covered the rent on a subsidized (not market rate) studio apartment. He found this information shocking, and deftly incorporated into his feel-good film the “radical” notion that we should treat our elders far better.
“I think the one thing folks can do in the every day is to ‘see’ older folks. To listen to them. To have empathy for them. And to treat them with dignity,” he says. “I think we’ve been trained to look away or ignore them. By doing so, we’re only hurting ourselves. After all — if we’re lucky — we’ll each get old. Why, then, are we working against our own interests by characterizing old people as useless or not worthy of love and respect?”
Most appropriately, Duty Free premieres on online theater venues today, Friday May 7, just in time for Mother’s Day. You can also stream it by visiting the Duty Free website. The site also has information for future activism through a Take Action tab, that features a list of actions around assistance, economic insecurity, and care.
“The larger question is: When are we going to make our eldest visible in this country? When will we allow them to age with dignity, to age in place where they feel comfortable, and, to thrive after so many years of giving … to a job, to their families, to their communities?” Regis asks.