Sky Bergman first filmed her 99-year-old Italian grandmother cooking lasagna and going to the gym because she felt the acts were so impressive that people needed to see them to believe them.
As Bergman approached the age of 50, she began to reflect on her life using her grandmother as a guide to “gracefully move through life and age with dignity, grace and humor,” Bergman said.
“I asked [my grandma] for a couple words of wisdom and she said some amazing things,” Bergman said.
This planted a seed for Bergman, who teaches photography and video classes at Cal Poly.
She started filming elderly people sharing personal stories and experiences most of us only read about in history books.
“We tend to think of the elderly as disregarded and we don’t have connections with them,” Bergman said. “We have lost knowledge and wisdom, so I hope people will look at these stories and realize everyone has a story to tell. We can learn valuable lessons from people who are older and wiser with more life experiences.”
Bergman is a self-taught filmmaker, so she never thought she would present her film “Lives Well Lived” at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF), where she would also walk down the red carpet.
“Lives Well Lived” gives a voice to the elderly, specifically those who have faced life’s greatest barriers. They have seen the best and worst of humanity, yet persist in good spirit.
This is Bergman’s first documentary. In fact, when she initially started the project, she aimed at producing a webisode. She emailed about 1,000 people asking if there was someone in their life they wanted to nominate for the project. As more and more opportunities arose, Bergman changed direction and began filming a documentary.
In creating such a personal documentary, Bergman understood the importance of building connections with the interviewees.
“I’d make it very clear ahead of time on what I was doing and told them about my grandma. I would sit and talk to them first,” Bergman said. “I re-interviewed people several times until I got what I wanted. Part of it is being persistent. I was trying to make it as positive of an experience for them as I could.”
After all the interviews were complete, Bergman went back and flushed out some stories to eliminate repetitiveness and prioritize the diversity of interviewees and their experiences.
“I felt it was important to include a Japanese-American who was in an internment camp and someone who escaped Nazi Germany and someone who was active in the civil rights movement,” Bergman said.
Many of those interviewed were greatly affected by World War II. According to Bergman, aspects of these stories parallel current times in society. She hopes this film will “prompt future generations to understand that democracy and human rights are fragile.”
“Someone [in the film] is Latino-American and Filipino,” Bergman said. “Her father came to work in the fields and she remembers going to school and being called a monkey. We’re seeing some of that same stuff happening now and it’s important to remember and learn from history.”
The film took four years to produce and involved interviews with 40 people between the ages of 75 and 100, with a collective life experience of 3,000 years, according to Bergman.
Bergman had a list of 25 questions she asked each interviewee, some of which were partially constructed by social science professors at Cal Poly. Within Bergman’s interviews, she looked for humorous or poigrant moments or words of wisdom.
Bergman highlighted that video storytelling faces different challenges than writing.
“On video it’s important how [interviewees] come across,” Bergman said. “Their speech and how fast they get the story out matter. I looked at who could tell a diverse story that was engaging with the audience.”
Bringing her skills to the classroom
Bergman’s video-students can attest to the value she places on getting quality video interviews.
Art and design senior Morgan Momsen is one student who benefitted from Bergman’s real world experience.
“She has a lot of really good tips on how to get the person to speak in a way that sounds good on film,” Momsen said. “When a sentence isn’t in the right order, you could say that your equipment wasn’t working and have them repeat it and they might say it more sufficiently.”
Momsen also noted that when it comes to video interviews, Bergman taught her that sound is key.
“She always says how people will forgive bad images or video, but never bad sound,” Momsen said. “They’ll stop playing if it’s not working.”
Production of “Lives Well Lived”
Bergman had a small production team of two associate producers and an editor. She almost entirely self-funded the film with some money coming from fundraisers, campaigns and donations.
While it’s hard to put an exact price tag on the film, the most hefty expense was the licensing for historical footage. One piece of footage Bergman used cost $90 per-second. In an interview with Montecito Journal, Bergman reaffirmed that the footage is “integral to strengthen the spoken narrative” of the film.
Another barrier Bergman faced was time management because she was simultaneously teaching full-time at Cal Poly while creating the film.
Bergman’s hard work paid off when “Lives Well Lived” premiered at the SBIFF, which ran from Feb. 1 to 11.
“They accept about two percent of films submitted and it’s international,” Bergman said. “The two screenings scheduled both sold out and they put a third screening on. There was tons of press and I walked down the red carpet. To come out from behind the computer and engage with an audience was wonderful.”
Bergman plans to continue submitting her piece to film festivals and hopes to eventually make an episodic series on PBS. She said the film will likely hit theaters in a few years.
“My favorite quote from the film, by Dr. Lou Tedone, sums it up well,” Bergman said. “‘Happiness is a state of mind. You can be happy with what you have, or miserable with what you don’t have. You decide.’ Sometimes, I’ll wake up in the morning and remember that.”