'Lives Well Lived': Film Review

Heartwarming lessons in how to grow old gracefully.
4/20/2018

Sky Bergman's documentary profiles dozens of seniors ages 75 to 100.

"Be endlessly engaged in whatever your passion is." "Work a little less, spend a little less, enjoy life a little more." "Sit loosely in the saddle of life as you go down the long trail." These are among the many words of advice imparted by the 40 interview subjects in Sky Bergman's documentary examining the lives of people ages 75 to 100. If you're eager to hear even more pearls of wisdom such as these, you're the prime audience for Lives Well Lived. It's the sort of documentary that makes you feel bad for ever feeling bad.

The filmmaker was inspired to make the film by her grandmother Evelyn, whom she started filming at age 99. Evelyn lived to be 103, long enough to see herself projected on the big screen at a film festival just three weeks before she passed away. Evelyn and the documentary's 39 other subjects, we're informed, represent some 3,000 years of collective life experience.

Not surprisingly, they turn out to be a happy, vigorous lot, despite many of them having undergone severe trials in their life including escaping from the Nazis via the kindertransport, being imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp as a young mother and having a father executed by Stalin when he was a teenager.

But these people are too busy enjoying their golden years to dwell on past tragedies. Louie, or "Lucky Louie" as the 92-year-old calls himself, gets up early every morning to make mozzarella for his daughter's delicatessen. Emmy, 86, teaches yoga, cutting an impressively lithe and athletic figure in a bathing suit. Ciel, 76, has been a nurse, professor, environmentalist, writer, lecturer and painter; she advises: "Follow your passion, change careers."  Blanche, 78, formerly active in the civil rights movement, teaches dance and indulges in her "newest passion," quilting. Santi, 81, still works as a photojournalist. These are not people spending their old age sitting in front of the television or playing mahjong.

The film is structured around a series of questions, to which the oldsters have no shortage of answers. Among their responses to the query, "What do you wish younger people understood about life?" are "They should understand the beauty around them, instead of just texting," "Don't sweat the little things," "Find your strength and use it" and "Luck has the aroma of perspiration."

And while a little of these sort-of fortune-cookie sayings goes a long way, the subjects are so engaging that it's a pleasure to spend time with them, even if you wind up longing to hear one of them complain about something, anything. They all seem physically healthy, emotionally content and financially comfortable, which is good for them but hardly representative of the country's elderly population as a whole.

Then again, the whole point of Lives Well Lived is to showcase inspiring individuals, and in that regard it succeeds handsomely. Director Bergman effectively alleviates the visual tedium of a series of talking heads by including plenty of home movies, vintage photographs and archival footage of historical events that figure in the commentary. And every once in a while, one of the seniors offers a remark that feels bracing in its honesty. When asked what they think about their own mortality, one answers, "I have a hard time visualizing a world without me." Don't we all?

Production: Sky Bergman Productions
Distributor: Shadow Distribution
Director/producer/director of photography: Sky Bergman
Editors: Randi Barros, Sky Bergman

72 min.