La Jolla filmmaker hopes documentary will plant ‘Seeds of Resiliency’

By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt

Two years ago, La Jollan Susan Polis Schutz wowed local film-goers at a special showing of “Over 90 and Loving It” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla. Her latest documentary, “Seeds of Resiliency,” is airing on PBS stations nationwide.

The film features Ugandan refugees, a Korean quadriplegic, a formerly homeless San Diegan, the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), three Holocaust survivors and a survivor of Stage IV lung cancer — a diverse group of people who have conquered the worst of life’s challenges by keeping their hopes alive and doing their best to help others.

As one of the “stars” in the film, 19-year-old Aaron Fotheringham, a motocross athlete who suffers from crippling spina bifida, puts it: “There are a lot of things that will drive you into losing hope, but I’m never giving up.”

Watch him nail a double flip in his wheelchair — not the first time, or the second, but he keeps trying till he does it.

“The first obstacle is your mind,” he said. “When life gives you limits, push ‘em!”

Two of the Holocaust survivors in the film are La Jolla residents: Edith Eger and Fanny Krasner Lebovits. Dr. Eger, a prominent psychologist who was born in Hungary, had childhood dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete. Instead, when the Nazis took over, she was sent to Auschwitz; her parents were killed, and she barely survived.

But she chose not to see herself as a victim, and in her work, she helps others triumph over adversity.

“You have a choice — pay attention to what you lost, or pay attention to what you still have,” Dr. Eger said. “No matter how much you’ve suffered, inner freedom and self-renewal are within your reach.”

Korean scientist/professor Sang-Mook Lee would agree. Six months after an accident left him a quadriplegic, he went back to work, in a wheelchair he controls with his head.

“I think of my accident as being a change in direction,” he says. “I don’t see myself as an unfortunate person. I’ve always considered myself lucky, because I’ve been able to do what I set out to do.”

Dedicated to making “documentaries that make a difference,” filmmaker Schutz said “Seeds of Resiliency” was originally inspired by Mike Stevens, who owned a photo store in La Jolla.

“My husband and I were his best customers, and then I found out he’d sold the shop because he had Stage IV lung cancer. I contacted him by e-mail, and he was off on safari in Africa, doing something he’d always wanted to do. What he said was: ‘I don’t think you really know how strong you are until a tragedy hits you, and then you have to find out for yourself. Either you live life, or you curl up in a ball.’”

That started Schutz thinking: Would she curl up in a ball? How do other people manage to deal with phenomenal challenges? What can the rest of us, with our own life challenges, learn from them?

“I sent out a huge e-mail, asking friends if they knew anyone I could talk to, and suggestions came pouring in. All the people I talked to have happy and productive lives, which was something I had no way of knowing before.”

She ended up with 150 hours of interviews, which she had to trim down to 56 minutes for PBS-TV. The finished film will air locally 2 p.m. on April 14.

What has Schutz herself learned from making “Seeds of Resiliency”? “I think hope is the lesson,” she said. “How important it is.”

■ When to watch: ‘Seeds of Resiliency’ airs 2-3 p.m. Sunday, April 14 on KPBS-TV.