How Creating a Family Story Movie Turned into Something Else

I’m a photographer/filmmaker hybrid. I got my beginnings in the editorial world telling stories through my images all around the world for magazines like National Geographic, Smithsonian and Travel & Leisure. Mostly I think of myself as a storyteller. When my mother died unexpectedly over a decade ago I realized that I only had a few photos and mementos to keep her memory alive. I’d give anything to hear her voice or her giggle again or to hear her tell a story that she had told a hundred times.

I knew then that I wanted to create films to preserve a family’s story and legacy.A film has the power to preserve those stories through interviews, imagery, sound and music in a cinematic memoir.

I’ve been working on a film over the last two years about the Pitney family that had inhabited a historic home and farmstead for 11 generations. The farm pitney-farm-before-fire-copyis only about a mile from my house but the family is flung all over the globe. The story seemed almost too big and a bit too distant and I found myself losing focus. Then I met and interviewed one family member, Barbara (Pitney/Lamb) Johnson who had researched and written her family’s biography and was extremely knowledgeable about the family history. She was also incredibly gifted in front of the camera and was able to bring her family’s stories to life through her memories and the warmth and cadence of her voice. It was then I knew that I had the makings of a priceless legacy film.

The farm had not been inhabited since 2013 when the last Pitney to have lived there passed away. The town purchased the farm in 2009 but when the last Pitney inhabitant died in 2013, the future of the historic property became controversial. Some wanted to preserve it for community use and others wanted to sell it. This past winter, one cold February night the Pitney homestead was destroyed by fire. The Morris County, NJ Prosecutor has since been determined the fire to be arson and it remains under investigation.

After the initial shock of the fire pitney-burned-out-shellwore off, I began to realize that I had captured priceless footage of the farm and Pitney family members telling the family’s story. I also realized that I had more than the makings of a just a family story. The Pitney farm had been a binding thread throughout the Pitney family’s history and the property and its demise was another story and a story whose ending has still not been determined.

I finally finished a short preview sample of the Pitney family story . In addition I ended up making a separate preview or trailer of the fire itself. The full feature length film of the family is in production. I’m not quite sure yet where I’ll go with the film about the fire that destroyed the farm but maybe I’ll follow Orson Welles’ advice;  “If you want a happy ending, it depends on where you stop the story”.



Family Biographies

I think one of the most gratifying areas I create videos for is in documenting family stories. This past weekend, I traveled to Michigan for a large family gathering. Because this part of my family is over 800 miles from me, I don’t get to see them as often as I like. I also know that the years go by like minutes these days and that many of my aunts, uncles and cousins are getting on in years.

On this particular trip I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and decided to set up time to get my relatives to sit down for video interviews. I wanted to archive their stories for future generations of our family. Mom,Jereta, Joyce, Dorlen, Frenchie

We took an afternoon and one by one, each aunt and uncle told me stories of growing up and the hard, but happy life they had on the family farm. They talked a bit about my mother and I’m grateful for that because she is no longer here to tell her story.

At times the tales were funny and it times they were quite emotional. But I think at the end of the day we all agreed that what we had accomplished in taping their stories,  was an important thing to do. Video is such a wonderful tool for documenting a family’s story because they are telling their stories in their own way, with their own voice. Creating family biographies is one of the most rewarding areas that I work in. And it’s also the most appreciated.  I’d like to think in my own small way that I’m continuing a legacy for future generations to come.

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