Emmy Cleaves, 86, does yoga daily. She says “the quality of your life is entirely governed by the state of your health.”
Emmy Cleaves, 86, does yoga daily. She says “the quality of your life is entirely governed by the state of your health.”

In new doc, eclectic elders share their secrets for living well

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Photographer Sky Bergman adored her grandmother. Evelyn Ricciuti, nearing 100, was working out on a stationary bike at the gym when Bergman turned on her video camera and asked, “Grandma, do you have a few words of wisdom for me?”

She did.

Live life to the fullest every day, the Bronx-born Ricciuti told her. Be good to everybody you know. Do a good deed when you can, and be happy.

At that moment, Bergman, a professor of photography and video at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, realized she needed to do a little more than a home video.

She put out a call to everyone she knew to nominate “elders who inspire you” and was flooded with responses from all over the country. There were so many exceptional suggestions that she said she found it difficult to choose which subjects to interview and then which to put in her documentary. In all, “Lives Well Lived,” Bergman’s first film, offers about 3,000 collective years of life experience — including Evelyn Ricciuti’s.

“We might say we honor our elders, but we are often separated from them and deprived of their experience and wisdom,” Bergman said by phone while driving to a premiere of her 72-minute film in Los Angeles. “They all have a story to tell if you just take the time to listen.”

The topic she chose apparently is tapping into an interest in what this over-75 demographic has to say. “Lives Well Lived,” which opens in Bay Area theaters starting May 4, already has won audience awards at the San Diego Jewish Film Festival, DOCUTAH and the Worldwide Women’s Film Festival, where it also won best documentary. It got the Best of Fest Heart of Gold Award at the Nevada City Film Festival, among other honors. Distributed by Shadow Distribution, which also handled the San Francisco doc “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” Bergman’s film is scheduled to open in 65 cities across the country, “with more being added every day,” she said.

Bergman asked all of her 40 interviewees the same 26 questions, but in the editing process, these were narrowed down to four: What is your definition of a life well lived? What is your secret for a happy life? What is the one thing that people should not worry about? What are your thoughts about mortality?

Despite the fact that her subjects were Catholic and Jewish, white and black, Japanese American and Latin American, there was considerable agreement among many of them, though perhaps communicated differently.

“There are inspiring people to be found from every background,” she said.

Botso Korisheli, 93, emigrated from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where Stalin executed his father when Botso was 14. Today he is a musician and sculptor: “Every day is a gift.”
Botso Korisheli, 93, emigrated from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where Stalin executed his father when Botso was 14. Today he is a musician and sculptor: “Every day is a gift.”

Bergman, 52, was raised in a Jewish home (her father was Jewish and her mother converted). Born in Philadelphia, she moved with her family to Florida when she was 8. She attended the University of South Florida, where she earned a business degree, and in her last semester took a photography class for fun — and discovered her passion. She went on to earn an MFA in photography at UC Santa Barbara, worked as a fine art and commercial photographer for several years, and in 1995 landed the teaching position at Cal Poly, where she has been ever since.

Were she to give her own advice about how to live a happy life, “do what you love” would surely be part of it.

“I have a Jewish grandmother, too, whom I also loved very much, and who lived to 96,” Bergman said. “She used to tease, ‘Oh, you’re going for the holidays with your Italian grandma because she’s a better cook than me!’ ”

Bergman attended Hebrew school, visited Israel in high school and grew up open-minded about all religions.

“No matter what religion you are, if you treat others as you would want to be treated, then I think we’re all good. My grandmother Evelyn’s motto was simply, ‘Be kind. Do unto others.”

But during the four-year process of making the film, Bergman was exposed to important elements of Jewish history that were entirely new for her.

One interviewee, the Berlin-born Marion Wolff, talked about having come over to England on the first Kindertransport out of Vienna. As she spoke about her wartime experience, she pulled out the cardboard identification number she had worn during her journey to safety when she was 8 years old.

“It was then I realized that this subject was something more than I had anticipated,” Bergman said.

Bergman said that although she is Jewish, she had never heard of the Kindertransport.

“To hear that firsthand account was remarkable to me, and I realized that in many of these personal histories, there was far more to delve into,” she said. “I went into it thinking I was going to gather all these good words of wisdom from all these elders. But when I heard Marion’s story, it transformed into something different: not just their words of wisdom, but what they had gone through, all the history that they had.”

Blanche Brown
Community activist and dance instructor Blanche Brown, 78, shows off a new form of expression: quilting. “Take time to just enjoy what’s happening right now,” she advises.

Bergman’s subjects are artists and physicians, teachers and musicians, and even one cheese-maker. Since many of Bergman’s friends and family are of European descent, she deliberately sought out elders from different cultures and origins. Her film includes poignant interviews with the vibrant Oakland dancer and artist Blanche Brown; Rose Albano Ballestero, who is Mexican and Filipina and was still working on her Ph.D. at age 80; and Susy Eto Bauman, whose family was sent to the U.S. government internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II. Bauman describes herself as “95 years young” and advised, “Life is not easy. You have to be strong enough to handle anything that comes your way.”

Bergman said that this history, too, was new to her.

“I grew up on the East Coast, where nobody ever talked about the fact that we Americans had interned a whole group of our own people during the war. I felt that was incredibly important to put that firsthand account in the film.”

Making “Lives Well Lived” left a strong imprint on her: She says that listening to these stories has changed the way she looks at life, after learning so much about what the seniors had lived through and how they had emerged “with so much grace and humility.”

She hopes the film will do the same for audiences.

“My goal with this film is to create a movement, where people start thinking about sitting down and listening and collecting the stories of their elders,” she said. “The last hundred years is the first time in human history that we have looked to anyone else besides our elders for wisdom and advice. And I think our world is suffering as a result of that.”

The film’s website, lives-well-lived.com, has a section where people can upload their own stories and share their “Lives Well Lived” philosophy.

Evelyn Ricciuti lived to see the sneak preview of her granddaughter’s film, at a full theater in San Luis Obispo. It received a standing ovation.

“I really think that was what she needed to see. And then she was done,” said Bergman. “She stopped eating and drinking and passed away peacefully about six weeks later. She was 103½. She had lived a good life.”

“Lives Well Lived” will be held over for a second week at the Vogue Theater in San Francisco and the Rialto Elmwood in Berkeley, May 11-17, and opens Friday, May 11 at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael and the Summerfield Cinemas in Santa Rosa.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull was J.'s culture editor from 2018 to 2021.