Not everybody has had the pleasure of interacting with the types of characters we meet in the care facility of Oakleigh Connections, but with thanks to 'Leaving Allen Street', audiences are not only on the receiving end of meeting said residents, but they are also privy to the joys and heart of the environment we are welcomed in to.
'Leaving Allen Street' documents the highs and lows of the residents moving from the congregate care facilities in Allen Street to brand-new homes which will importantly be embedded in a community. Oakleigh Connections was first established in 1972, and many of the residents have been living within the walls of the institution since. This new horizon marks the first time these larger than life characters will have the luxury of independence and experience natural engagement with a community, whether it be shopping, barbecues or a walk in the park. For the residents, this is a monumental occasion, and one that's captured so colourfully by director Katrina Channells. For the audience, this is an experience imbued with love, smiles, warmth and even tears.
Channells chooses to make her documentary with a fly-on-the-wall lens, and it quickly becomes obvious why this was the case. The residents here not only have the opportunity, but have the right to tell their own stories, and it's wonderful to see. Had they been directed to what questions they should answer, which stories they should tell, or which of their treasured processions they want to tell us about, the sincerity and the heart that's woven throughout would have been lost, and the significance of the event may have felt hollow. Instead, as they gain their independence for the first time, so too they are left to speak by their own device.
That's not to say 'Leaving Allen Street' feels like a David Attenborough insight into a new and unfamiliar world. On the contrary, by letting the residents speak for themselves, and following the stresses of the move, audiences will leave this feature feeling like they know the residents intimately - and that's a wonderful thing. These larger than life characters are just that - characters - and it's a privilege to get to know them over the course of the move. There are love stories, life-long friendships, dance numbers and interior design meetings.
Of course, there is a surrounding environment of stress, and that will inevitably lead to hardships, but the camaraderie and trust that all the residents have for each other - not to mention the magnificent support of the care team - makes the journey feel seamless. Audiences will be excited by the prospect of the new homes, and going along for the drive to visit their houses is equal parts exhilarating and heartwarming. Seeing the yellow feature walls and red toasters that the residents all picked out for themselves melts your heart. It all comes together to drive home the point of the specialness that this really is their first home, and something so simple like an unregulated breakfast can mean so much.
These larger than life characters are just that - characters - and it's a privilege to get to know them over the course of the move.
Fair warning, not all the tears viewers will experience will be of a joyous nature. One of the more upsetting tales audiences get an insight to is Valerie's, who has been at Oakleigh Connections since its inception. With no such care facility available at the time, it was Valerie's parents who actually planned and built this institution. Unfortunately, the move to the new homes came too late for Valerie, as we follow her now elderly parents to a new care facility, where she needs round-the-clock attention. To hear her parents speak about her with such love and admiration is beautiful, and the reminder that they won't be around forever to look after her is heartbreaking.
We are at the mercy of whatever life throws at us, but one of the lessons 'Leaving Allen Street' wants to leave us with is love. Without prompts this feature could have been a mess, and it bares not thinking about how much great material must be on the cutting room floor. Thankfully, Channells captures all the stress, the hardship and the high emotions in a wonderfully positive and dignified experience. There isn't much in the way of drama, nor does it preach in its education, but it is just bursting with so much heart and authenticity that it becomes a meaningful and beautiful documentary.
The beaming smiles the residents have on their faces when they finally move in is shared with its audience. They may have intellectual or physical disabilities, but they are people, and they have all the human emotions. They not only deserve this happiness, but through 'Leaving Allen Street', they actually lead us to ours.