When the filmmaker Azza Cohen asked her grandmother to be the star of her latest documentary, she knew she wanted to tell a story of an older person not looking back at their life but forward. Cohen had grown up interviewing her grandparents just for fun, asking questions about their lives growing up in Chicago and how they got engaged (which yielded two different stories). When she asked her eighty-two-year-old bubbe what was on her bucket list, the answers surprised her—her bubbe wanted to learn how to swim and ride a bike. “Swimming spoke to me on an emotional level because I think it is scary,” Cohen told me. For many, swimming lessons are associated with childhood. “What would it look like to have my bubbe in her wetsuit, with her neck brace?”
Cohen’s film “FLOAT!” follows her bubbe, Judy Miller, through the process of learning to swim with an instructor. It’s also a portrait of Miller’s daily life and her relationships with those around her—video-chatting with her best friend since kindergarten, letting her small dog, Tink, drink from her mug. Miller has a vibrant personality; she energizes a string of otherwise mundane moments with her unedited candor and wittiness. The film does not dwell on Miller’s past, and does not even mention the specifics of her life story as a child of poor immigrant parents, who had fled the Soviet Union and Poland, respectively, before the Second World War. But her immense wisdom and tenacity shine through immediately. “She always grew up with this sensibility of the American Dream,” Cohen told me. “And that was something she instilled in me as a kid.”
Cohen’s praxis is grounded in the belief that the relationship between the director and the participant should constantly be examined—and working with her family for the first time required her to change her approach. Five minutes into filming Miller, Cohen knew she could not stick with the fly-on-the-wall style; she had to repeatedly break the fourth wall. “You see these moments where she had a different idea, or we would be planning a scene, and she’d be, like, ‘I don’t want to do that—I think we should do this instead,’ ” Cohen said. She tried editing herself out of the film, but that version felt way too sterile. “So much of her comedy is her relationship with me, and how she treats me as a granddaughter, who is simultaneously the director.”
When Cohen first talked to her about the project, Miller doubted Cohen’s choice to make her M.F.A. thesis film about her—as she put it, all she had done in her life was “be a mom and a grandma.” She asked why Cohen was using such a nice camera to film her and suggested using an iPhone instead. “I think nobody, who isn’t profoundly arrogant, thinks that their story is worth a documentary, right?” Cohen said. “And she certainly didn’t think her story was worth a documentary.” It has been deeply gratifying for Cohen to witness her bubbe gain confidence and joy through being in the film. That confidence seemed to rub off on the filmmaker: Cohen told me that this was the first film she made where she hasn’t been preoccupied with whether people will like it. She got to have fun with her bubbe, and making the film brought the two together in a way that Cohen said she will treasure her whole life.
During one sitdown interview, Cohen told Miller she was worried about her accidentally drowning. “And she was, like, What if I drowned? I’d rather die by drowning and filming with my granddaughter and trying something new, than hooked up to wires in a hospital.” Cohen hopes the film will make people laugh, or help them find the courage to do something they haven’t tried before.