Susan Polis Schutz: After a long career as a poet, this La Jolla filmmaker creates ‘documentaries that make a difference’
By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt
Don’t worry, be happy. Those four little words are a key to the full, fulfilling lives of the 90- and 100-year-olds featured in “Over 90 and Loving It,” a documentary by longtime La Jolla resident Susan Polis Schutz. First screened at the Jewish Film Festival in February, it drew such a crowd that two additional screening rooms were opened to accommodate the audience. On April 20, it will have its “official” premiere at the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla.
For the film, Schutz interviewed people across the country, from all walks of life, including her husband’s uncle, a 94-year-old New York City cabdriver. Each five-hour interview included the same 50 questions.
“The hardest part was cutting that five hours down to five minutes,” Schutz said, “and deciding which people to use in the film. It’s always hard to drop people, when you come to love them all.”
The 13 who made the cut have certain things in common: a healthy lifestyle, a positive attitude, and a commitment to following their passions. They don’t focus on their age or health problems, and they’re not afraid of death.
Some of these over-90s have extraordinary skills, like the Senior Olympics medalist who is still running, shot-putting, and pole vaulting at age 94.
Or the ragtime-piano-playing couple who have been making music together since 1947.
But most are just ordinary folks busy making the most of the rest of their lives. And that involves doing for others. As one woman, a 97-year-old African-American who organizes major giveaways to the needy, says: “Helping somebody — that’s what I love to do.” Says another, “To be able to make a difference is exhilarating.”
“That’s why I’m making my films,” said Schutz. It’s the motto of her film company, Iron Zeal: “Documentaries that make a difference.”
Schutz has come a long way from Peekskill, the small town in upstate New York where she grew up in the 1950s, wanting to be the first female pro baseball player.
Instead, she began writing heartfelt poetry, took a teaching job in New York City’s Harlem ghetto, was drawn into 1960’s activism, and met her husband, Stephen, who had a doctorate in physics and a talent for art.
The two made their way to Boulder, Colorado, where Stephen had a job in solar physics, and Susan worked as a freelance writer until one fateful day in 1970, when he decided to illustrate a poem she had written to a friend.
They started silk-screening posters in their basement, selling them from the back of their pickup truck. Then they branched out into greeting cards — the humble beginning of their wildly successful company, Blue Mountain Arts.
With Susan’s ability to put her personal experiences into words that millions of people could identify with, Blue Mountain cards were like something you’d get from a caring, compassionate, sweetly articulate friend.
Books and calendars followed, and then, in the 1990s, they pioneered electronic greeting cards by launching bluemountain.com. They sold that part of the company in 1999.
“We got into it because we had nice messages,” said Schutz. “But the business part — all that deal-making — was not for us.”
Filmmaking became her new passion. In 2005, she produced and directed “Anyone and Everyone,” with parents of gay sons and daughters speaking frankly about their kids’ coming out. Like her poems, the film came from personal experience, since her oldest son is gay.
“I saw the torture he and his friends went through, telling their families, and what the families went through, and I found some wonderful people to be in the film,” Schutz said.
All her films have the same interview format, and generally deal with some issue she’s faced in her life. There’s one on depression, another on following your dreams.
Her current project deals with resiliency: How do you turn your life around after tragedy? And she keeps in touch with many of the people in her films.
Schutz works with the same team, year after year. Karen Bidgood, her executive assistant for the past 13 years, is her associate producer. (Not so long, in Schutz-time — many of the Blue Mountain staff have been with her more than 30 years!)
KPBS has presented all her films, and distributes them to other public television stations. It will host the screening/reception at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
If you go
What: KPBS-hosted premiere of “Over 90 and Loving It”
When: Wednesday, April 20; 6:30-7 p.m. refreshments; 7-8 p.m. screening, followed by a discussion moderated by Susan Polis Schutz with “stars” from the film
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art La Jolla, 700 Prospect St.
Free admission: Reservations required.
RSVP: Karen Bidgood (858) 456-2336 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On TV: If you miss the screening, KPBS will air “Over 90” at 8 p.m. April 26. Schutz’s first film, “Anyone and Everyone,” will air at 11 p.m. April 25.
On the Web: ironzeal.com
This life is yours …
Take the power
to create your own dreams
and try hard to reach them.
Take the power to make your life
and very happy.
— Susan Polis Schutz
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