“As I get older,” said filmmaker Hunter Weeks, “I realize how much elders are important to developing our perspective around what lies ahead, and the significance of big societal moments.
“When I first met Walter Breuning, I could feel a link to a very long time ago. And I loved being able to learn from listening to him.”
Bruening, of Great Falls, Mont., didn’t miss a day of the 20th century. Born in 1896, he was believed to be the world’s oldest man when he died in April 2011, aged 114 years, 6 months, 23 days. By that time, Bruening had spoken at length to Weeks and his wife and co-producer, Sarah Hall Weeks—inspiring the 84-minute documentary “Walter: Lessons from the World’s Oldest People.”
“Walter” made its world premiere on Friday at the IFC Center in New York, beginning a one-week run. Its next appearance is at the 10th annual BendFilm festival, where it will show at 10 a.m. Friday at the Cascades Theatrical Company and at 3 p.m. Saturday at McMenamins Old St. Francis School. Tickets are available online at www.bendfilm.org or from the festival center in the Liberty Theatre on Wall Street.
In making “Walter,” Weeks interviewed a half-dozen “supercentenarians”—that is, people over the age of 110.
“I learned that living a good life boils down to simple pleasures and rolling with the punches,” said Weeks. “I was amazed that each of the people we interviewed didn’t have huge philosophical preachings: They’d simply share examples of basic ways they rolled through this life. They all seemed like extremely positive people and they taught me to think about the broader arc of life.
“Things change all the time, but our fundamental self slowly evolves. I think too often we all get caught up in trying to control this and speed it up. All of the ‘Supers’ were born in a much slower time, and therefore had a different kind of inner peace. I think we can all learn from that.”
Weeks, 36, was raised in Phoenix, Ariz., but now lives in Bozeman, Mont. “I’m sure not having a whole lot of connection to elders in my current stage of life helped drive this desire to spend more time with them,” he said. “Both sets of my grandparents have passed away, and my father died when I was younger.”
There were challenges in making “Walter,” said Weeks—not the least of which were the age of the subject. “We knew we might not have long to capture their stories,” he said. “We had to adjust the story in ways to accommodate their limited amount of time left.”
In order to allow the interview subjects and their families to feel relaxed during film production, Weeks said, the movie was shot with minimal equipment in a cinema verité style. The family of Besse Cooper, who died in December 2012 at the age of 116, “was very sensitive to the media,” Weeks said, “so we spent a lot of time assuring them we wanted to give the truest, most accurate depiction of this special moment in her life.”
Weeks’ previous movie was “Where the Yellowstone Goes,” about a month-long drift-boat trip down the longest undammed river in the contiguous 48 states. His next is another documentary, “Coming Clean,” shot in the Potomac River watershed. He is also in development on a narrative television series about bicycling.
“I try to keep making stories that will teach us about ourselves and give us insight to things that really matter,” he said. “I want people to realize the possibilities that exist for all of us.”