Cal Poly professor Sky Bergman has spent years searching for the answer to one of humankind’s most persistent questions: What’s the secret to a happy, healthy, meaningful life?
Is it a positive attitude? An active social life? Regular trips to the gym?
Bergman, 52, shares her findings in her documentary “Lives Well Lived: Celebrating the Secrets, Wit & Wisdom of Age.” The 72-minute-long movie begins its theatrical run Friday at the Palm Theatre in San Luis Obispo.
Bergman will field questions from moviegoers following two special screenings on Sunday and March 3.
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“To have (the movie) come so far is beyond my wildest dreams,” said Bergman, the documentary’s director, producer and cinematographer. “I still have to pinch myself and remind myself this is happening.”
Bergman credits her late grandmother, Evelyn Ricciuti, as the inspiration behind “Lives Well Lived.”
Once, while accompanying Ricciuti to the gym, the San Luis Obispo filmmaker asked her to share some words of wisdom. “Be kind,” Ricciuti responded, and “Live life to the limits.”
“I just realized, ‘There’s a project here,’” Bergman told The Tribune in 2014.
Filmed over the course of four years, “Lives Well Lived” features interviews with 40 people ages 75 and up — including an Oakland dance teacher, a Los Angeles yoga instructor and a Santa Barbara photographer — sharing their life experiences and insights on how to live life to the fullest.
Their advice touches every area from emotional health to physical well-being. Some recommend community involvement and a strong social network, while others emphasize the importance of a healthy diet and regular exercise.
“All of these people, they’re physically, and more importantly, mentally active,” Bergman said in 2014. “That’s what keeps them really young at heart.”
Among the local luminaries featured in the film are retired San Luis Obispo pediatrician Louis “Lou” Tedone, San Luis Obispo artist Evy Justesen, and Morro Bay music educator, sculptor and painter Wachtang “Botso” Korisheli. (Korisheli, who died in 2015 at age 93, was the subject of another documentary, 2014’s “Botso: The Teacher from Tbilisi.”)
Former San Luis Obispo mayor Ken Schwartz, Los Osos archeologist Georgia Lee and Linnaea Phillips, founder of beloved San Luis Obispo coffeehouse Linnaea’s Café, also make appearances.
“Everyone has these amazing stories to tell,” Bergman said. “You just have to dig under the surface a little bit.”
Bergman said she was struck by how many of her interview subjects experienced severe hardships during trying times such as the Great Depression and World War II — only to respond with hope and optimism.
San Luis Obispo architect, educator and humanitarian Paul Wolff and his wife, Marion, both fled Nazi Germany, while Susy Eto Bauman, who grew up in the Los Osos Valley, was removed from her home and incarcerated with other Japanese-Americans at a Colorado internment camp.
“All of these people see life as ‘the glass is half full’ ” as opposed to half empty, Bergman said. “They’ve been through all these horrific things and you think, ‘How can they still be so positive?’ ”
As an example, she cites one of her favorite quotes from Tedone, who calls himself “Lucky Louie.”
“If I’m having a bad day, I think, ‘Happiness is a state of mind,’ and you can snap out of it,” Bergman said. “The film has inspired me to remember that every day is a gift and live in the moment as much as possible,” she added.
That message of perseverance and positivity has resonated with audiences as well. Since its world premiere at the 2017 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, “Lives Well Lived” has screened at more than a dozen film festivals across North America; the movie is headed to a film festival in Brazil in March.
The documentary opens in three theaters in the Los Angeles area on April 20. It’s also screening at locations in Maine, Michigan, New Mexico and Texas.
“You never know how a film is going to affect people,” Bergman said, so she’s been delighted to see audience members leaving screenings of “Lives Well Lived” “feeling very uplifted” and inspired. “I’ve had people come up to me after the film and go, ‘Wow, I want to go home and interview my mom or my dad and collect their stories.’”
The response to “Lives Well Lived” has been gratifying for Bergman, a first-time filmmaker who balanced production with a full-time job teaching photography and video in Cal Poly’s Art & Design Department.
She estimates that she’s spent close to $150,000 on the movie so far — mostly her own money. She received a $6,000 grant from Cal Poly and raised about $9,600 via an Indiegogo fundraising campaign. In addition, the Palm Theatre has hosted a few screenings as fundraisers.
“I did it as a total labor of love,” Bergman said.
Now the Cal Poly professor is eyeing her next film project.
She starts work this summer on a romance-minded documentary featuring couples sharing their love stories and offering advice on how to make long-term relationships work. It’s tentatively titled “Lives Well Loved.”
Bergman said she’s naturally drawn to subjects that inspire.
“I eat, live and breathe whatever I’m working on,” she said. “I’m just a positive person, so it has to be something positive.”
Where to watch
“Lives Well Lived: Celebrating the Secrets, Wit & Wisdom of Age” begins its theatrical run Friday at the Palm Theatre, 817 Palm St. in San Luis Obispo.
Showtimes are at 4:15 and 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1:30, 4:15 and 7 p.m. Saturday through Monday.
In addition, filmmaker Sky Bergman will participate in question-and-answer sessions following two special screenings, held 1:30 p.m. Sunday and 11 a.m. March 3.