Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Preserving personal histories, telling Stories with a Heart

HALLIE EPHRON: We Jungle Reds tell made-up stories of fictional characters. Filmmaker Leslie Wittman tells what she calls "Stories with a Heart" -- the stories of real people, preserving personal history. Today I'm pleased to host her on Jungle Red.

I met Leslie when we were both working at Digital where she developed corporate videos, more years ago than either of us care to count. How serendipitous, after Sunday's discussion of our favorite WWII novels, that her first project as a personal history videographer was capturing memories of WWII survivors.

LESLIE WITTMAN: About five years ago I got a call from someone who asked if I could help with a large WWII Memories project being undertaken at a local retirement community. 

As a child of holocaust survivors, WWII was not something we talked about. I didn’t know if I really wanted to or was able to “go there” by being involved in this project. 

However, having the opportunity to hear the stories of bravery and selflessness that people had in order to save people like members my family filled me with gratitude. 

This project ended up being a turning point in my life both professionally and personally. I began to focus my work on capturing and preserving memories and stories of elders as a legacy for their families or communities. I’m privileged to see and hear so many examples of ways that people are vibrantly and creatively engaged in life in their later years and it inspires me to discard any assumptions I may have had about aging and to live my own life boldly and with purpose.

HALLIE: A case in point! I love your video, Moving from Foot to Foot, about two women who dance again. It's so delightful to watch.  


Can you tell us the back story of how you ended up creating that video?

LESLIE:  I was working on a video about two people in their 90s who’ve become poets and recently published their work. I went to videotape a class taught by their poetry instructor and a woman in that class told me I needed to come meet her mother who does ballroom dancing at her assisted living facility. 

What I found there was a truly inspirational dance instructor and a wonderful story.

HALLIE: How do people connect with you?

LESLIE: By word of mouth. Often it’s the grown children who contact me because they want to preserve their parent’s stories. I conduct a pre-interview so I can get to know the storyteller and then at another time we do an on-camera interview using questions I developOddly it’s often not until later when I review the recordings and begin editing that the story begins to emerge. 


HALLIE: Leslie, all of the writers reading this will relate to this. It's how so many novels and essays come together. By feel. How do you know when you're done?


LESLIE: A video program can be cut and pieced together in countless ways. I can edit and re-edit until the end of time. At some point I have to decide that this is the story I’m going to tell.

HALLIE: It's spooky how much this is like writing a novel. And what YOU end up with every time are stories that do, indeed touch the heart. Do you ever contemplate putting your videos together into a documentary? 

LESLIE: I’ve produced two short documentaries—one about how food helps people stay connected to their to cultural heritage, and the other a living history of a small New England town, featuring elders who grew up there. I am contemplating crafting another one with material I’ve been collecting in my “Age is Only a Number” series.

HALLIE: THANK YOU! I love writing older women--they have starring roles in THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN and in YOU'LL EVER KNOW, DEAR, so I am particular taken with Leslie's work. 

Have there been older women in your life that have touched your heart and led by example?

Visit Stories with a Heart Videos website and watch video clips.

42 comments:

  1. What a fascinating story, Leslie . . . I wonder, do you have a “favorite” from among the stories you’ve heard as you created these video stories?

    Both my mom and my grandmother, women of integrity and courage, were women who led by example . . . .

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    1. Thanks, Joan. My "favorite" is usually the one I'm working on at the time, however I must say that I love the one featuring the two women in "Moving From Foot to Foot".

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  2. What wonderful videos, Leslie. Thanks for bringing her to our attention, Hallie. I wrote software manuals for Avid Technology for many years - the software many film and video editors use to craft their movies. We were lucky enough to have Thelma Schoonmaker (Martin Scorsese's editor) come talk to us a couple of times. It's quite a process, and now that I write novels, I agree that it's a lot like crafting a book.

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    1. How exciting to have Thelma Schoonmaker come speak to you! I was very fortunate that one of the participants in the WWII Memories project was Ward Chamberlin, one of the architects of PBS. He was very good friends with Ken Burns and invited Ken to come talk with us after the project was finished. Quite a thrill!

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  3. That video was so amazing--thanks for visiting Leslie! I must go view the story about food now...

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    1. Thanks Lucy! I only have a couple of clips of food stories on my website but I can point you to more if you're interested.

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  4. That is so fascinating! And cannot wait to watch these videos.
    I edit with video every day, too, and it is so astonishing how the only way to write the story is to watch the video and see what it tells you to do. And then, in the actual edit booth, it's amazing how simply flipping two shots, or even taking one, out will change the story.
    And continuing the "just like writing " analogy, I always teach classes to be aware of wide shots, tight shots, pans and zooms. We should use focal length in writing stories as well.
    In fact, thinking about it, I learned how to edit video digitally by thinking about it like writing… Just using pictures instead of words.
    So fascinating to hear about this from you today!
    And love the "Age" idea.
    I haven't watched your videos yet, so this might be clear when I do… Do you use Music? How do you choose it? Doesn't it make an amazing difference?

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    1. Hank, you're absolutely right about editing - both in video and writing. And you're also right about the power of music. I do use it sometimes and it can make all the difference in setting a mood or moving the action along.

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  5. What a wonderful video! Yes, editing a movie sounds a lot like writing a novel.

    My grandmother was the inspiration for my historical short story in MYSTERY MOST HISTORICAL and the WWII-era novel I'm working on. I hope she'd be pleased.

    Mary/Liz

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    1. I'll bet your grandmother would be pleased! What a great tribute to her.
      I'm glad you liked the video.

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  6. I wish my mother was still alive for you to capture, Leslie - she never talked about what it was like to grow up in the Bronx, the Great Depression, being a professional woman in early Hollywood. I'll bet she'd have had stories to tell.

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    1. I'm sure your mother's would've been a fascinating story!! It's a shame that people don't realize the value and importance of capturing a loved one's story while they're still alive. On the other hand, there's no reason not to do a biography/retrospective of them after they've gone to pass along their story to future generations.

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  7. I love the video, Leslie, and agree that shaping a video is much like writing a novel. They are both forms of storytelling, after all. A few weeks ago, when Triss Stein was here on Jungle Red, I mentioned oral histories as an important research source. Are your videos archived somewhere for the general public to use? Other than your website, that is. Do families allow you to make them public? What a rich resource for future generations!

    I come from quite a line of interesting women, but the first name that popped into my mind when I read your question, Hallie, was a college professor named Dr. Leslie Irene Coger. Dr. Coger was born in rural Arkansas in 1912, the daughter of a minister, and seemed to be headed on the usual path for women of that age. She got married when she was 18, she later told me, but "I was only in it for a week or so before I realized it just simply would not do." She got the marriage annulled, then struck out for Boston, where she attended the Curry School for Expression, an acting academy. Eventually she settled in Springfield, Missouri, where she taught theater at Missouri State, and became an internationally recognized pioneer in the field of readers theater. She was there so long both my mother and I took some of her classes when we were working on our own degrees--Mom in the 1940s and me in the 1970s.

    My mother loved to tell the story of a party for Dr. Coger's students, sometime in the 1980s, where everyone started looking through her old scapbooks and photo albums. Most of the other students were looking at past plays Dr. Coger had directed, but Mom focused on a much older book, and on the photo of one particularly handsome young man. When she asked Dr. Coger who it was, Dr. Coger's face lit up. "Oh! That was my husband!" she said. Then, squinting a little into the dim recesses of time, she added, "I think his name was Lawrence . . . "

    The last time I saw Dr. Coger, she had retired from teaching (in her 70s) in favor of traveling the world. I ran into her at the university library, where she was doing research for a presentation on her recent African photo safari. "The little old ladies in nursing homes like to see things like that," she assured me, then explained that in a couple of months she'd be headed off to Russia, which had only recently opened up to more casual tourists.

    I want to grow old like that.

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    1. What a fascinating and inspiring story! Those are the kind of women I love to interview.

      Except for the WWII Memories videos I hadn't thought about archiving stories for the general public until recently. I'm currently working with a man whose life has been so interesting and exciting that we will be making his stories and documents available to the public.

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    2. "Oh! That was my husband!" she said. Then, squinting a little into the dim recesses of time, she added, "I think his name was Lawrence . . ."

      Gigi, this is the best thing I'll read today!

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    3. Small world time: Gigi, that "Curry School of Expression" became Curry College which is where I taught back in the 80s and my husband still teaches! https://www.curry.edu/about-curry/our-legacy/history.html
      Dr. Coger sounds like a terrific role model.

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    4. How fun, Hallie! Dr. Coger was definitely a distinguished alumna. Ann, I'm so glad I tickled your funny bone. That's one of my all-time favorite Dr. Coger stories. She was a pip.

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  8. Welcome, Leslie, and what a wonderful video. This made me stop and think about doing something similar, just for my children. I'm the oldest family member now, and I am certain there are stories they haven't heard, like my grandmother's first menstruation. She and her younger sister were walking out on the Texas prairie, and she stopped to "piddle." She saw blood and thought she'd cut herself on a rock. She was sixteen, yet knew nothing about her body really. She told me this story upon my first experience with the visit from the red headed cousin!

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    1. Great story, Ann!
      You should consider collecting and passing along your stories to your children - it's a great gift. Let me know if you need any help/guidance.

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    2. Ann, you are such a natural storyteller. You should do this!!!!

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    3. Hmmm. Maybe I should. So many stories are already lost. Guess I'll have to put word on my computer.

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  9. Leslie, Thanks for a great start to my day with the ballroom dancing video! I loved the women's stories, and it was fascinating to see what they thought they could do and what they actually could do in terms of movement.

    If you were to film yourself, what story or chapter of your history would be the focus?

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    1. Hmm, that's an interesting question. I'll have to think about that.

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  10. Leslie, that video is a delight! And the ninety-four year old lady is certainly an inspiration to "keep moving." Your memory project videos are fascinating, too. There are so many questions I wish I'd asked of my grandmother, my parents, my aunts and uncles, and now it's too late.

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    1. Thanks Deborah! It is a shame that you didn't get a chance to ask questions from your relatives. It's interesting that my own mother didn't really start telling me her stories until she started watching the videos I've made with with other families. She still doesn't want to be on video, though. :)

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  11. In an increasingly visual era, it is wonderful to see how narrative develops in the world of cineamatography. I am significantly hard of hearing, so much of the verbal commentary was lost to me. I was able to follow the visual narrative as it flowed so well. How costly is it to include sub-titles, I wonder?

    I would love to see the memories of the nurses who worked in the early 20th Century. My mother was one of those women. One of her class mates, Jean Boyle, traveled the world establishing Public Health Clinics. Her memories were fascinating, and now sadly lost to most. She was too busy working, and too modest to write a memoir. Thank you for visiting JRW today, Leslie.

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    1. addenda: I did not in any way mean to put down your work. Obviously you care deeply about people. I just wondered about the logistics and costs of adding closed captioning. It seems that even major production companies tend to rely on other organizations to provide this service. Thank you again.

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    2. Coralee, I didn't take it as a put-down and I'm sorry you didn't get a chance to hear the narrative. I certainly understand your point about subtitles. It does take extra time and money to include them, but I will consider adding them in the future.

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  12. What a wonderful video and post. There are so many questions I now wish I'd asked those boring old people in my life when I was young and callow and they wanted to share. What a loss! How wonderful that you are capturing these stories.

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    1. Thanks, Kate. I guess there will always be older people in our lives who we can learn from (and most of them like to share stories of their lives.) Just recently I interviewed a 91 year old woman who is still a full-time substitute teacher - and the kids love her.

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  13. Leslie, what important and meaningful work you are doing! The video was so inspirational and heartwarming. That young man is making so many people's lives richer and keeping dreams alive. The two women went from living with memories to making new ones. Just a beautiful video that you have given us. I am looking forward to viewing more of your Stories with a Heart videos. Thank you for visiting the Reds today and sharing your amazing work.

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    1. I appreciate you saying this, Kathy! I knew there was a story there when I saw Michael interacting with the participants in the dance classes. He is so kind, gentle, and respectful to each person he dances with. And as you saw, he helps make them come alive.

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    2. Is he a physical therapist? A volunteer? What moved him to do this wonderful thing for the patients?

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    3. He's a professional dancer who dances with a troupe. He developed this program himself and goes to assisted living facilities and memory-loss centers. Quite inspirational!

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  14. I remember my mother-in-law, who died at 90 in perfectly good shape, hated to be photographed as she got older. Vanity, I suppose. Is that something you encounter with older women subjects, Leslie?

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  15. This is just lovely. What incredible stories people have. I am so glad you visited us today, Leslie, and shared your wonderful gift with us. It is a terrific reminder for me to listen and then write down the stories I hear from the generations ahead of me.

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    1. I'm very grateful that Hallie invited me.

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  16. For those of you interested in seeing more about this young dancer, he's J. Michael Winward https://www.jmichaelwinward.com

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  17. Hallie, thank you for introducing us to Leslie. Wonderful stories!

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