February 24, 2020

Celebrating the Wisdom of the Aged

When Sky Bergman began filming her 99-year-old Italian grandmother, Evelyn Riciutti, in 2012, she didn’t plan to make a documentary. She simply wanted to preserve her grandmother’s recipes for posterity.

“She was an amazing cook but never wrote a recipe down,” Bergman told the Journal. “As she cooked, I asked her for a few words of wisdom. And that was the start of the project.”

Figuring that, like Riciutti, other seniors would have insights, life lessons and stories to share, Bergman sought referrals from family, friends and colleagues. Ultimately, she conducted interviews with 40 people ages 75 and older. “My grandmother was my inspiration, but it became much more about all these diverse stories. It needed to be a feature-length film,” she said.

Five years in the making, “Lives Well Lived: Celebrating the Secrets, Wit & Wisdom of Age” is the debut film from Bergman, 52, a professor of photography and video at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. Her subjects represent a wide range of ethnicities, professions and economic backgrounds but all are accomplished and active, with dancers, yoga practitioners and world travelers among them.

“They’re passionate about learning something new. They have a support group of friends or family surrounding them. And they have a positive attitude that keeps them going,” Bergman said. Despite the hardship, adversity and loss that many of them faced, “They all see life as a glass that’s half full rather than half empty.”

Bergman, who is Jewish — her mother was raised Catholic but converted to Judaism as a college student, and her father grew up in an Orthodox, kosher home — profiles several Jewish subjects in the documentary.

She asked all her interviewees questions about longevity, mortality, old age concerns and living well, but the subjects with the most compelling stories were spotlighted in longer segments. These include a Japanese woman whose family was sent to an internment camp during World War II, and Jewish couple Marion and Paul Wolff of San Luis Obispo, who escaped Nazi Germany as children and are looking forward to celebrating their 58th wedding anniversary later this year.

Marion, 87, a Berlin native, was sent to safety in England on the first Kindertransport train from Vienna in December 1938. Her sponsoring family later arranged a servant work visa for her mother, “but my grandmother and Paul’s grandmother both died in Theresienstadt [concentration camp]. So did other relatives,” she said.

Paul, 88, noted that his father, who fought for Germany in World War I, “didn’t see the light” about the seriousness of the Nazi threat before Kristallnacht. Having secured visas, Paul and his parents reunited in London with his two older sisters, who had been sent out of Germany on a Kindertransport in 1939. The family sailed by tramp steamer to the United States via the Panama Canal, settling in San Francisco.

While visiting family in the city, Marion’s cousin, who knew Paul’s sister, set them up on a blind date. She was determined to divert Marion’s attention from a German young man she planned to marry, much to the dismay of his parents. “His father had been a Nazi,” Marion said. (Surprisingly, she is still in touch with her ex-fiancé, who lives in Canada. “We’ve stayed at his house in Ontario,” she said.)

Paul also was engaged, to a Chinese woman with two children. But he and Marion bonded over their similar refugee history. “He was the first Jewish man I’d ever been out with,” Marion said. Her family was not observant, and her foster family in England was Quaker. “I keep many more Jewish traditions than Marion does,” Paul said.

The couple agrees that a sense of humor is the key to happiness. “You can’t get through life without it,” Marion said. “It certainly helped us get over a lot of arguments,” Paul added.

He also emphasized the importance of “devoting your energy to something you feel passionate about.” He’s an architect and teaches people how to design spaces to accommodate those with disabilities. Together, they often speak about their experiences to youth groups, military groups, schools and congregations in the United States and Europe.

Paul hopes that the film inspires viewers to “focus on where they’re going and where they’ve been and enjoy every moment while they’re living it.”

Bergman said that, other than her grandmother, who died at 103, most of the film’s participants are still alive. “I think it’s important to have role models who are living long, full and engaged lives. There’s a lot of longevity in my family,” she said. “And I want to be engaged
right up until the end.”

She plans to start a new project this summer on the subject of love. “I got the idea watching the people [in “Lives Well Lived”] talk about their significant other and how they met,” she said.

There are several takeaway messages in the documentary that Bergman hopes audiences will appreciate. Like Paul Wolff, she emphasizes the importance of living in the moment, especially as one gets older, and having a positive attitude. She hopes the film inspires people to take time to talk to the seniors in their lives and hear their stories.

“I’d love the audience to come away with a thirst for wanting to know more, and see the older population as people who are still vital and engaged,” she said. “Everyone has a story to tell if you just take the time to listen. Hopefully, I’ll inspire people to do that.”

“Lives Well Lived” opens April 20 at the Laemmle Monica Film Center, Town Center 5 and Playhouse 7 theaters.