What is a personal history film?

When I tell people what I do for a living, they often give me a puzzled look. “What is a personal history film?” they ask, wondering if I’m a historian, a filmmaker, or something else entirely.

I like to start off by explaining exactly what a personal history film is. Keep in mind there are a lot of names for this product, including video biography, video memoir, life history video, tribute film, or family history movie. For this article, we’ll call it a personal history film.

So what is it? A personal history film is a 30-60 minute documentary chronicling the stories, remembrances and history of an individual, couple, family, or a business. Think of it as a custom-made A&E biography. Rather than it being about someone famous, it could be about anything…including you or your parents. The film could be historical in nature, soaring through the highlights of a person’s life. Or it could be more philosophical, expressing one’s values, beliefs, hopes, dreams and the lessons learned from living life (commonly known as an “ethical will”). It could focus on one moment in time—such as grandpa’s experiences in the War—or cover 300 years of family history. The possibilities are endless.

With the use of today’s digital technology, a personal history film can record a person’s life as no other medium could do in the past.  What makes a personal history film so special? Rather than explaining it with a list, I thought it would be more interesting to ask you to consider the following:

  • Seeing your grandmother’s sweet facial expressions as she recalls memories of being a youngster in the 1920’s.  She tells of the summer she spent picking blackberries and being paid just enough money to buy a special dolly at the local Five and Dime.  Her cat Sally sits on her lap as she tells this particular story while being filmed.
  • Listening to the loving tone of your mother’s voice as she reflects on becoming a mother for the very first time.   She speaks of her initial concerns about being a good mother, but recalls that upon caressing you for the very first time, all her fears vanished.
  • Watching Uncle Joe smoking his cigar, telling his corny jokes and doing his all-too-familiar magic tricks. Somehow everything old is new again.
  • Hearing your great aunt Rosemary share stories of living through WWII.  She talks about ration tickets, black out curtains, not having real butter to spread on toast and having to walk to and from church on Sundays because there was no gasoline to put in the family car, a 1939 Nash LaFayette.

Did these elicit an emotional response? They are the sorts of memories of the past that can easily be captured on film (but less so in a book or an audio recording).  Of course your own stories will be a little different, but that’s what makes personal history films so powerful: they’re tailored to each person, each family, and each moment in time.

One of my favorite quotes is from Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), the Irish dramatist, novelist and poet.  Wilde said, “Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.”  Today, think about moving some of your special memories from your (mental) diary to a timeless digital film. And if you’re interested in learning more about personal history preservation, I highly recommend the following books:

The Story Only You Can Tell – Creating Your Family History With Ease and Expertise by Toni Sorenson Brown

Ethical Will – Putting Your Values on Paper by Barry K. Baines, MD.

Tell us about your own personal history film. What has it meant to you and your family?