In Susan Polis Schutz’s documentary “Seeds of Resiliency,” which will screen at the Laemmle Theatres through Nov. 1, Mike Stevens, a father of young children in his early 40s, describes how he first responded to his diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer in 2005: “I curled up in fetal position in bed and cried myself to sleep,” the La Jolla resident says. “I thought my life was over.”
Instead, after two rounds of chemotherapy that left him weak and emaciated, “I started living my life,” he says. Despite his severely decreased lung function, and no guarantees of survival, he adds, “I started doing things I never would have done if I were healthy.” He sold his business, built his dream house in the mountains, and became an advocate for lung cancer research. “It’s not about the bad stuff, it’s about the good stuff,” he says of his outlook day-to-day.
Stevens is among 12 people of disparate ages and backgrounds profiled in “Seeds of Resiliency,” which began when Polis Schutz – herself a survivor of a six-year battle with clinical depression – began wondering “what are the common characteristics of people who survive serious tragedies and trauma?” the filmmaker, who belongs to a Jewish renewal synagogue near her home in Boulder, CO, said in a recent telephone interview. “Everyone has challenges in their lives, and some people move through them while others curl up in a ball and give up. I really wanted to know how some people [thrive] and others just don’t.”
In “Seeds,” we meet a refugee from Uganda whose son was beaten and killed in prison, who founded a relief organization to help other refugees, as well as a spina bifida patient, now a professional wheelchair motor cross athlete, who tells others that “When life gives you limits, push them." We also meet Candy Lightner, the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who turned her grief and rage after her daughter was killed by a drunk driver into a national organization. “The point is to do something,” she advises others who have undergone family tragedies. “I don’t want people to think they have to start a movement, but they can still do little things that make an impact.”
“I found that the two most important things that helped people overcome tragedy were their attitudes of hope – that you don’t give up, you fight and persevere – and also every single one of the people I interviewed turned their traumas into a desire to help other people,” Polis Schutz said.
In the film, Holocaust survivor Fanny Lebovitz, who now lectures about her experience, recalls her nightmarish time in Auschwitz, where she slept on a filthy bunk teeming with bedbugs and cockroaches. “I used to dream about sleeping on white sheets again,” she says of one way she managed to keep her spirits up in the camp.
Edith Eger, another Auschwitz survivor, recounts how she used her imagination to get through a terrifying dance performance for the infamous Dr. Mengele: “I knew he was the one who [selected inmates] for the gas chambers, she says. “[So] I closed my eyes and pretended that the music was Tchaikovsky and I was dancing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the Budapest opera house.”
Eger shared the piece of bread Mengele gave her with other girls in her bunk; later they made a chain with their arms to carry her after she fell during the freezing death march from Auschwitz. “The worst can bring out the best in us,” said Eger, who used the memory, in part, to give her strength when she lay near death, her back broken, upon liberation.
“Seeds of Resiliency” is Polis Schutz’s fifth documentary (others, such as “Anyone and Everyone,” about gay children coming out to their families, have aired on PBS stations). But she is perhaps best known as the co-founder of the groundbreaking electronic greeting card company, BlueMountain.com, which reportedly sold in a transaction valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars in 1999.
Polis Schutz, who is also a poet whose work graced many of the Blue Mountain cards, has had a fascinating life journey. Now 67, she was born into a Jewish working class household in a poor neighborhood in Peekskill, NY, where her mother often worked menial jobs to support the family and young Susan worked cashier and other jobs starting in her early teens. Eventually, she put herself through college at Rider University in Lawrence, NJ, and began her career teaching Head Start students at a school in Harlem.
She and her husband, Stephen, a physicist and artist, were deeply in debt with student loans when, on a lark, he suggested that he illustrate one of her poems on a silk screened poster around 1970. After copies of the work sold out at retail stores near their home in Boulder, the couple paid a $700 deposit on a truck with a camper and began traveling the country, selling their posters from Boston to San Francisco.
By 1980, their Blue Mountain Arts company had 200 sales representative and 100 employees; when Stephen chanced to send their oldest son, Jared (now a Democratic congressman from Colorado) an animated email birthday card in the 1990s, the idea for Blue Mountain.com was born.
Along the way, Susan Polis Schutz wrote some 10 books, many of them memoirs or collections of her poetry. “Depression and Back: A Poetic Journey through Depression and Recovery,” recounts how, some seven years ago, she woke up one morning “and felt like I had died,” she said in our interview. “I stayed in bed for the first three months, and while I kept getting better and better, I was a mess for a while.” Perhaps the depression stemmed from exhaustion, as well as a family propensity for the condition, but with therapy and medication Polis Schutz slowly recovered and began wondering how others with depression had coped.
The result was her 2010 documentary, “Misunderstood Epidemic: Depression;” Polis Schutz’s other documentaries include “Over 90 and Loving It,” about vibrant nonagenarians, and “Seeds of Resiliency,” for which she shot more than 100 hours of footage in several cities over three years.
“I was looking for people who were willing to talk about their pasts and why they thought they had been able to survive,” she explained.
One poignant subject is Rufus Hannah, who was homeless for 22 years until he got sober and became an activist for homeless rights in 2005. “My parents were alcoholics; my mother gave me beer in my bottle,” he says on camera, adding that he was an alcoholic from age 14.
In the film, he returns to the dumpster where he had lived for decades, and recalls how a man once offered him $5 to star in a film he says eventually became part of the infamous early “Bumfights” videos. At the time, Hannah says, he jumped at the chance to earn some money to buy alcohol: “They put me in a shopping cart and pushed me down a flight of stairs,” he recalls, as we see footage from “Bumfights” and Hannah’s bloodied face. “I became ‘Rufus the Stunt Bum,’...and then things got scarier," he adds. "They provoked us to fight each other.”
Hannah’s injuries left him with double vision, epilepsy and a speech impediment, but that didn’t stop him from hoping he could one day get off the streets. The change came when, after an alcoholic seizure, Hannah saw an image of his daughter sitting on the edge of his makeshift bed. “I made the decision that my kids were more important than drinking,” says Hannah, who spent 29 months getting sober and now has eschewed alcohol for nine years.
With the help of a businessman who became his mentor, Hannah is now the assistant manager of an apartment complex and has a home of his own.
An important part of his life continues to be encouraging others who are still on the streets: “I always said I wanted to find a way to give back,” he explains. “I have a wonderful life now.”