A Look at ‘Lives Well Lived’

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Though it happens far too infrequently, it’s a pleasure to behold when seniors are polled and honored for the sagacity they possess. And such is the delight of the recently-released film Lives Well Lived: Celebrating the Secrets, Wit and Wisdom of Age. Promotional materials boast that it’s derived from 40 people, ages 72 to 103 with “3,000 years of collective experience.”

Sky Bergman, the filmmaker and a professor of photography and video at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo, California, says the original muse for the film was her grandmother. “I grew up in my grandma’s Italian kitchen,” she says. “And when I went to visit her in Texas when she was 99 years old, she was still working out.”

By the looks of it, that’s not fake news. Bergman’s grandma, Evelyn Ricciuti, features prominently in the frames: sometimes clad in a sweatsuit while gamely cranking an exercise bike, sometimes in an apron wielding a rolling pin. Asked to divulge her secret for happiness, Ricciuti offers up a three-part solution: “Live life to the fullest every day of your life. Be good to everybody you know. Do a good deed when you can.” (Ricciuti died on April 23, 2016 at the age of 103; she had the opportunity of watching herself in a starring role in the film at a sneak preview at a theatre in San Luis Obispo, where it received a standing ovation.)

Inspired and egged on by her grandmother’s words, Bergman began interviewing other older people, intending to feature their pronouncements in a web series. Somewhere along the way, the idea of combining them in a feature-length film dawned. The entire process took about four years — with Bergman wedging her work on the final feature among her fulltime teaching duties.

Seniors Saying the Darndest Things

The film is literally and figuratively colorful. And part of its charm is that it doesn’t rely on cinematic tricks. The subjects are shown straight on and intimately — a happy result of the filmmaker’s need to use minimal equipment and operating on a low budget.

A few things seem to unite the people featured: good humor, optimism, a refusal to be defined by the number that is their age. And several of the people share a deeper commonality: fortitude formed by living through tough times. Along with happy memories, they recall the early battles for suffrage and civil rights, time in concentration camps and internment camps, fighting and losing loved ones in World War II.

A few of the elders’ musings give a flavor of the film.

Louis Tedone, age 92: “Happiness is a state of mind. You can be happy with what you have, or miserable with what you don’t have. You decide.” He marvels that he was “lucky in love,” married once to a woman who died 22 years ago. “The grieving never stops,” he says. “But the intensity does.”

Rose Albano Ballestrero, age 80: “Even though I’m 80, I still want to finish my PhD. I have six more units left. No matter what age you are, learning never stops. You still keep learning.” She has practical advice, too: “Drink water.”

Susy Eto Bauman, age 95: “Life is not easy. There are lots of obstacles and things you have to overcome, but you have to be strong enough and have a positive way of thinking so that you can overcome anything that comes your way.” Vowing that she will live to be 100, she gardens and does regular exercise, which includes a daily walk uphill to the mailbox. “Coming down is a joy,” she says.

Evy Justesen, age 81: “The attitude you have about life is really the only thing you can control, and that is what determines how you are going to live your life.” Her own life has included taking some risks, especially as she got older. “But I was much more afraid of becoming boring than of jumping off a cliff.”

Wachtang Korishell, age 93: “I look forward to the next hour, next day — and no plans. I take what I can and absorb it as much as I can — mentally, physically, emotionally, visually, audibly. I drink it up.”

Rachel Winn Yon, age 78: “When I wake up in the morning, I expect something good to happen. I don’t know exactly what it will be — and sometimes it’s postponed until the next day or the day after. But inevitably, there’s something wonderful that will happen.”

The Making of the Movie

“Lives Well Lived” is a shortish film — only 72 minutes — and the characters featured are so entertaining that the time seems to zip by. Not all forty people Bergman interviewed while gathering string for the film have been included in it. She says that in selecting those appearing, she focused on delivering “a humorous moment, a poignant moment, and words of wisdom.” But the wisdom of those not included is not forever relegated to the cutting room floor. Bergman hopes to include the outtakes in a “bonus section” on a DVD of the film to be released in the future.

In addition, there’s a section on the film’s website that allows people to submit their shared stories.

And as evidenced by its very title, Lives Well Lived, Bergman, a first-time filmmaker, sought out subjects who seemed content in their later years, even euphoric. But through that limited lens, viewers mostly miss out on learning pitfalls to avoid.

There was also a limitation in the process used to interview the subjects. Each person was asked the same set of 26 questions. Among them:

  • What’s the secret for a happy life?
  • What’s one thing people should not worry about?
  • What do you wish young people understood?
  • What do you think about mortality?
  • What is the accomplishment you are most proud of?
  • What has been most instrumental in shaping your own life?

Asking rote questions is an easier approach to interviewing, but here risks missing out on uncovering or following up on the threads that make each person unique.

And sometimes it left its tracks: There must have been a question about reaching the milestone of a half-century. Bergman began filming when she was on the brink of turning 50 — and an unlikely number of those in the film laud it as the best year of their lives, or close to it.

Despite these few warts, however, Lives Well Lived  highlights the joy many older people feel in living and aging — and instructs in the  ways they were able to do it.

Screenings are being scheduled in many cities in the U.S.

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