'She's sharp, she's a teenager in the world of the oldest people in the world'
Sam Green, a documentary filmmaker working on a movie of the oldest humans alive, tells Catalan News about meeting Maria Branyas
Maria Branyas, the world's oldest person at 116 years of age, will soon feature in a documentary taking a look at the planet's oldest humans.
American filmmaker Sam Green is undertaking an ambitious project where he intends to interview the oldest people in the world for the rest of his life, "but every once in a while I'll make a film and put it out," he tells Catalan News. As the holder of the title changes frequently, it will be an "ever-expanding film," according to Green.
Green recently met Maria Branyas for the project, and was struck by how "sharp" the woman born in 1907 still is. "She's like a teenager in the world of the oldest people in the world," the documentary maker joked, saying that 116 is relatively young to hold that title, before admitting, "or middle-aged, maybe."
The first of Green's series on the oldest people in the world is expected to be released in 2025, and the filmmaker was taken aback by Branyas's bullishness when she told him she'd be at the premiere.
"When we went I expected her to be asleep all the time, and so I was so pleasantly surprised to see she's wonderful and sharp and funny, she's great," Green said. "I was really impressed because Rosa just doesn't want her to spend her last days answering the same goddamn question from every journalist all around the world, which makes a lot of sense. I felt very lucky to be there."
So far, the film is eight years in the making, with seven people interviewed.
Green tells Catalan News he was "self-conscious about asking the same questions as everyone asks" – what's the secret to staying alive for so long, especially. Maria Branyas just says it's genetic, "which mostly it is," Green agrees. "A lot of people say 'I eat bacon' or 'I eat chocolate,' but it's mostly genetic. I tried to ask her about her past, her life, and Rosa said most people don't do that."
Branyas has had a very interesting life, including her family crossing the US-Mexico border while her mother was pregnant with her, and arriving in an earthquake-stricken San Francisco. A traumatic transatlantic ship journey to relocate back to Europe permanently saw the family lose the father to tuberculosis and Branyas forever lose her hearing in one ear. Upon arrival in Catalonia, her life has been shaped by so much of the 20th century and so many of the huge events, from the World Wars, to the Spanish Civil War, and not one but two pandemics.
Green says Branyas is "unflappable." When the team asked Maria Branyas how it felt to be the oldest person in the world, she replied with, "I didn't do anything, it's not a big deal."
"I thought early on that somebody who's 115 would be very wise about the world and have profound things to say about life, but it's funny because, at a certain point, you start getting more and more like a child. A lot of times the oldest person in the world is like a child, so you can't ask a question like what have you learned about life, and at a certain point where all they want to do is have memories and think about nice things and what they're eating today, the way a kid does, a kid doesn't want to think about the big picture."
Green's film project was born from doing another movie on Guinness World Records, and he found that a lot of people were fascinated by the idea of the oldest person in the world, something that the filmmaker says is "a window into universal ideas: we all age, we're all going to die, we're all puzzled about what happens when you die, we're all puzzled by the mystery of fate, why do some people live very long and some people don't?"
"It's all a mystery and I think the oldest person in the world allows us to think about that," Green explains. "It allows us to think about the fact that time passes and certain things are part of a lived memory and then they're gone, they're in the past and nobody remembers them. I think there's something very profound about that."