by Sarah McKinney Gibson
Sky Bergman didn’t have experience creating documentary films. But after capturing her grandmother in a series of videos demonstrating the full life she was living at the age of 99, the photography professor at Cal Poly got an idea.
Sky sent an email to family, friends and Cal Poly alumni asking about other adults like her grandmother, who were living life to the fullest. She got 70 replies. What to do with them all? Maybe a series of videos on YouTube?
Then Sky interviewed Marian Wolf — and the answer became obvious.
“When she pulled out her Kindertransport cardboard number,” says Sky, “that’s when I knew this had to be a documentary film, that the stories had to be diverse, and that this could have a real impact.”
Lives Well Lived features 40 people between the ages of 75 and 100 years old. Its theatrical release has been followed by more than 250 requests for community and educational screenings. And, perhaps most exciting, it’s become a catalyst for bringing generations together.
“I read an article that said the last hundred years in history is the first time we’ve looked to anyone but our elders for advice and guidance,” says Sky. “That really struck me, that there are so many young people who don’t have the connection I had with my grandmother. I feel the world is suffering as a result.”
Sara Bartlett teaches a Psychology of Aging class at Cal Poly. After seeing the film at a theater in San Luis Obispo, she reached out to Sky to discuss what became an intergenerational service learning project between Sara’s students and senior residents at The Villages, an independent living retirement community in town.
After watching the film together, one or two students were matched with each resident. During three more encounters, students and residents took turns interviewing each other using a discussion guide. The students then prepared summaries of what they learned during their interactions and presented the “memoir documents” at a wrap party held in the University Art Center on campus.
Some of the intergenerational pairs are still connected. “One college student took her 90-year-old friend to the Opera, which the student had never done before. And a lot of the students said they realized their similarities with the residents were greater than their differences,” Sky says. “So I’m hopeful that this experience will allow them to more easily connect with other older adults in the future.”
The two Cal Poly professors are teaming up to do it again this fall, and other schools have done similar things using the discussion guide. A film teacher at Groton High School invited people from a local senior center to come watch Lives Well Lived with his students. They also watched the independent film Eighth Grade, so it wasn’t just a one-way street.
Sky’s big audacious vision is to have Lives Well Lived integrated into high school and college curricula across the country. What better way to teach history than to hear moving personal stories from people who have lived it themselves?
The film will be available on DVD and streaming services in January of 2020. Until then, you can request a community or educational screening by contacting Sky at [email protected] The release strategy is intentional. “Something about the physical experience of watching it together and the conversations that follow — it’s more meaningful than watching it alone.”
Sky’s grandmother, Evelyn Riccuiti, passed away just six weeks after the sneak preview of the film at 103. She not only inspired the film but led Sky to find 40 new “grandparents” to watch over her. Maybe that was her plan all along.