When acclaimed photographer Sky Bergman decided to film her 100-year-old grandmother Evelyn Ricciuti working out in the gym, she had no idea it would kick-start her own second career as a documentary maker. Now “Lives Well Lived” – featuring 40 inspiring people aged 75-plus talking about their lives – is picking up film festival prizes and gleaning rave reviews.
Bergman, 52, says “Lives Well Lived” evolved from a one-minute video to a full-blown documentary about her grandmother and other inspiring “everyday people” who shared their secrets, wit and wisdom.
“This started because of my grandmother. I videoed her cooking at 97, then the gym at 100 because I thought no one would believe she was still working out. Then I started hearing other people’s stories. They were compelling. I wanted to show the positive side of ageing. People in the documentary changed careers, moved countries, learned new languages, one was finishing her PhD at 80. They were all looking forward, curious to learn more.”
Bergman said there was much the younger generation could learn from seniors. “In the past we looked to our elders for advice, many people lived with their grandparents and parents. We’ve moved away from that but I called my grandmother every day. I knew I could ask her anything.”
“She had 100 years worth of experience,” Bergman recalls. “She was someone I could look up to and admire. Every summer she flew from Florida to stay with me in California and she got to see the first sneak preview of the documentary just before she died, aged 103, two years ago. She had a saying, “Move it or lose it” and she remained active right up until the end.”
In creating the documentary, Bergman found heartbreaking stories of families ripped apart by World War Two. Marion Wolff was just eight when she boarded a train in Austria – with nothing more than a cardboard number hanging around her neck – as part of the kindertransport rescue operation. “I’m Jewish and educated yet I had no idea about kindertransport or the generosity of people willing to take these children in, Bergman remembers. “Marion still has her cardboard number – it made me realize the documentary was much bigger than just stories about seniors who had lived full lives.”
“Then there’s Suzy Eto Bauman, who was placed in an internment camp for people of Japanese ancestry during the war, while her husband died fighting for the Allies. I grew up on the East Coast and it wasn’t until I moved to California that I even heard about Japanese internment camps. The people I interviewed didn’t feel sorry for themselves. They made the best of what happened and went on to live full, interesting lives.”
Bergman found three common threads from the people in the documentary and demonstrated aging with attitude. “They all live in the moment, they are not isolated and have the support of friends and family and they all wake up every morning wanting to learn more. This is a cliche but it also true, there were people who went through terrible events in life yet the glass was always half full, not half empty.”
Here are a few highlights of Lives Well Lived:
Evy Justesen: At 49, Evy Justesen moved from America to France for “the totally selfish reason that I needed a break,” enrolled in college and learned to speak her mother’s native language. “I’m a gutsy person and that doesn’t go away with age,” says mother-of-two Evy, whose Danish resistance fighter father spent seven months in a concentration camp in World War Two. “Attitude is the only thing in life you can control and it’s certainly true when it comes to ageing with attitude. “At almost 86, I’m incredibly lucky to be in good health. I walk every day, I sleep really well, I don’t like to get stuck in a rut.”
Paul and Marion Wolff: As children during World War Two, Paul and Marion Wolff fled their European homelands. German Paul ended up on a boat bound for San Francisco and Austrian-born Marion was taken in by a British family. They met on a blind date and have now been married 58 years. We are learning more about each other as we age. We’ve never run out of conversation,” says retired architect Paul. “I have never been bored by Marion.”
“And we learned a lot from being in the documentary. There’s a lot of wisdom in the movie. We are always rushing forward and it makes you appreciate where you’ve been and what you have accomplished.” The couple, both 88, gently tease each other as they discuss the merits of ageing with attitude.
“I’m stubborn, down to earth and I refuse to give up,” says Marion, who worked as a liaison between prison inmates and their families while raising their three children. “I believe you only get out of life what you put into it.”
To learn more about Lives Well Lived, visit the website here.
Is it playing in your area? Check it out here.