Movie memoirs

New technology helps the elderly pass on their wisdom to future generations.

October 3, 2007 21:33
Movie memoirs

harvey stein . (photo credit: )


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W hen Harvey Stein decided to transition from theater and performance art into making personalized documentaries and video ethical wills seven years ago, he chose his father as the first subject. But when asked to participate in the creation of a video ethical will, the senior Stein's response was far from encouraging. "My dad said to me, 'Aw, you kids don't want to listen to my advice anymore or hear my stories,'" says Stein. And this, he adds, is a common response. When you announce to a parent or grandparent that you want to do a movie memoir to document his life or have her create an ethical will, they often think of it as a reminder of imminent death or they are too embarrassed or shy to speak on camera, explains Stein. "The tradition of passing on values is a common theme in the Bible. You have examples of ethical wills from figures like Jacob and Moses, but you can also make movie memoirs for new babies or produce a personalized documentary as a birthday present. It doesn't have to be at the end of a life," he says. After Stein's father read So that Your Values Live On by Jack Riemer, which documents the long and rich history of ethical wills in Judaism, he agreed to make a video to record his own stories and experiences for his children. "Once he read that book, he understood that he would not be alone in telling his story. He talked nonstop once he got started," says Stein, who adds that making an ethical will is a great way to preserve your stories and bequeath moral values to your family. "Making the video ethical will with my own father was part of my education too. I learned a lot from that experience." One example of his work, a movie memoir he made for a woman in New York who loves to play the harp, features his client telling a beautiful story about her father matching every penny she saved as a young girl to buy a harp. She earned only 35 cents an hour babysitting, but one day her father won $500 in the lottery - a huge sum at the time. Instead of using it to feed their relatively poor family, he gave it to her. The harp she bought is the one she still plays, and she wanted her children and grandchildren to know its origins. Born and raised in what he terms a "semi-assimilated" Jewish home in New York in 1959, Stein attended synagogue with his family on the High Holy Days, but it wasn't until his 30s that he took a real interest in discovering his Jewish roots. On a three-month odyssey to Eastern Europe, he visited the city where one of his grandmothers was born and then toured Auschwitz. He says that although none of his relatives perished there, seeing it was an important part of his journey. "I was 35 the first time I visited Israel," Stein says. "By then, I was inspired by my Jewishness, and I attended some Shabbat services with the Chabad in Safed. That inspiration was part of what led me from theater into filmmaking too." He cites the lowered cost of advanced technology as another impetus for his career change. "I have always loved storytelling and working with people and writing, and these are skills that I use in making videos now," Stein says. At the same time, buying a high-quality video camera and editing it with software on a laptop only became affordable in recent years. Commercials and video segments that once cost at least $50,000 to produce can today be created for much, much less thanks to lowered equipment cost and good computer software. "Today, anyone can make movies. I took my experience with creating intimate plays and working with theater groups to tell stories and converted it to what I think is one of the largest mediums of our time: videos." Four years ago, Stein met his future Israeli wife. "I never fantasized about coming to live in Israel, but when my wife got pregnant she wanted to be close to her family in Jerusalem," says Stein, who made aliya in 2006 and now resides in Jerusalem with his wife and new baby boy. "It's an intense place to live, but it's also a country striving for modernity and I am happy to be a part of that." Because the subject of each video differs, each creation tells a different story. He has just finished a video for the Aldo ice cream store that features the making of different flavors. "Any store can now afford to buy a television and make a short commercial for themselves," says Stein, who has also made videos for non-profit organizations, such as the International Sephardic Education Foundation and Tishkofet, an organization to help those facing terminal illnesses. "Because these videos are not being produced to make money, people can include any music they want without worrying about copyright laws, and they can also convert old film footage or photographs and integrate them into the new video," says Stein, who included a 1962 bar mitzva in a recent memoir. "My Hebrew isn't very good yet, so most of my clients in Israel have been English speakers, but I hope to progress and have more Hebrew speakers as there are some wonderful stories to preserve here." He says that some upcoming grant money will enable him to record more Holocaust stories and make videos for lower-income segments of the population who may not otherwise be able to afford the expense. "Making a personal video gives people a chance to reflect on their lives, and it can be a powerful therapeutic tool and a healing activity," says Stein. "I often find that my work goes beyond just making a video into the realm of intermediary between generations and sometimes even as a kind of therapist." For Stein, making videos integrates his passion for storytelling with his Jewish roots and traditions. "Stories have always been important in the Jewish culture, especially stories passed on from generation to generation. My work uses ancient traditions in the modern, digital world. I like to think of it as a kind of renovation for the new medium."

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