We live in a culture of chasing: chasing a goal, an idea, an opportunity. We’ll chase three things at once and obsess about what we don’t have. All the while, never looking up from a device in our hands.
We tend to miss what’s right in front of us with the justification that we’re trading that present moment for a greater future.
So when my father told me the story of Andre Mencz, a Holocaust survivor whose life was spared because of a single moment in time, I was a bit shaken. If a brief moment can yield an entire life, then why am I trading away thousands each day? Why do I choose preoccupation over participation?
Eli Wallach, however, was the embodiment of the latter.
In his 90’s, he was still working on major films and had no reason to do a small project like this, but he had a few days free and wanted to tell a story. He accepted the role by calling me in character and telling me Andre’s life story before asking me what I thought of his Belgian accent. Who was this man who when it came time to shoot, had committed himself so deeply to the character that when he told “his” story it brought us both to tears?
The answer came to me as watched Eli on his breaks. Instead of going off to the side to be alone, he engaged with us all. He brought copies of his book for everyone on the set and wrote a personal note to each of us. He had time for every passerby. He came to know the whole company and even compared surgical scars with his “body double”. He invited anyone who had a moment to come sit with him, and he would tell stories. Every moment that we weren’t shooting, he spent surrounded by an audience of actors and crew hanging on his every word. The value for Eli was the people around him, and watching them light up. He participated in every moment and used each breath to engage with everyone around him.
Eli passed away last summer. Despite only having a handful of days with him, he gave me one of the greatest experiences of my life. In a film about a moment that changed a life, Eli gave me a moment that I will never forget.
We chase, we grab, we seek but let this film serve as a reminder to us “chasers” to look up every once in a while and drop the phone. There are people here with us who can enrich our lives and all we have to do is participate. Thank you Eli for giving me an opportunity that I didn’t deserve but for which I will be forever thankful…and now, for the opportunity to help you engage with an audience one last time.