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Personal documentaries capture memories, values

Semiahmoo Secondary graduate Rebecca Robinson interviews Jan and Marg Huisman inside their home in Guelph

Seniors have stories to tell, values to instill as well as lessons to pass on – and Rebecca Robinson is listening.

The Semiahmoo grad, who now lives in Guelph, Ont., has fused her passion for writing and photography to create a video biography company that immortalizes the thoughts and lives of seniors for family members to cherish for generations. 

Called Silverscenes Productions, the service offers a number of ways to preserve priceless memories, from house tours that document rooms and recollections in family homes to ‘how we met’ videos that show couples recounting their time together.

Clients can also host their own recipe show to put old family recipes on the record; recite a Christmas story to send to distant grandchildren; or create a personal travel segment that chronicles various places one has lived or visited.

But for Robinson, 35, seniors’ life stories are her focus.

“That’s where my passion lies,” she said, noting that hearing seniors’ stories has given her perspective on her own life. 

“It’s really to show seniors how their stories are valued and valuable, and change the way they’re being remembered, and preserve these things that are going to disappear.”

In a life-story movie, Robinson transforms the recounting of one’s history into a personal documentary. 

The process includes interviewing and filming subjects before editing material into a 15- or 30-minute DVD complete with pictures and music. 

The skills she draws upon to produce the tributes are ones she has picked up along the way, beginning when she lived in White Rock.

Robinson had her first taste of interviewing when she was still in high school, working as Peace Arch News’ Street Talk reporter, a gig she landed after volunteering in the newsroom during her Grade 11 year. 

Her role entailed stopping people on the street for their responses to the PAN’s question of the day, and taking their photos.

Robinson further developed her interviewing skills while obtaining a creative-writing degree at UBC. She was assigned to profile various personalities, one of the most memorable being Bard on the Beach artistic director Christopher Gaze.

“That fascinated me and got me to think about when I was doing those Street Talk interviews and how much I liked that.” 

Unable to pin down what she was truly passionate about, Robinson became a teacher, moving with her husband from B.C. to Alberta, then finally settling in Guelph five years ago.

While homeschooling her three young children, Robinson began to think about her next move. 

“I wanted to start something for myself because I knew I wasn’t going to go back into teaching and I knew it had to be flexible.”

While Silverscenes – which she launched last month – has allowed her to combine her love for photography, interviewing and storytelling, Robinson said she had to learn a new medium, too. 

She researched and taught herself the elements of film, and has spent the last month practising with editing software.

Robinson also connected with the Association of Personal Historians – she is now the Eastern Canada co-ordinator – which has about 600 members, most of whom capture people’s stories in the book format.

“I haven’t found that the way I do it is widely done yet,” she said, adding her goal in using video is to reach youth. 

“Doing it with multimedia and the use of technology, I think that’s what’s going to get them rather than passing them a big book and saying ‘Here’s grandma’s history – read it.’” 

Clients can also leave a lasting legacy through “ethical wills,” in which one records his or her values, beliefs and wisdom.

Robinson made one with her mother-in-law, who passed on the importance of love, courage and humour.

“My son, the way he has memorized her values word-for-word – he can recite them – I’ve never seen a kid do that,” she said. 

“It was a grandma speaking those words more to her grandchildren, so those grandchildren perk up and basically they’re absorbing what’s being said to them because it’s being said by someone in their family.” 

Robinson said her 18-month-old daughter, who only sees her grandmother twice a year, rushes to the TV when she hears the DVD playing.

“She barely knows her and now she knows her from this film,” Robinson said, noting her daughter would often make strange when grandma visited. 

“Now she’s going to recognize her voice right away and recognize her face, and the connection will be easier.” 

Not only is a DVD more readily absorbed by youth, she said, but it is also easier to distribute, as it can be uploaded online for family all over the globe to view. Robinson is now working to get seniors onboard with the concept.

“The stumbling block is they’re so humble that they don’t want to be the centre of attention anymore,” she said. “It’s the subjects’ families that are probably more my target market.”

Robinson said she will pack up her equipment and fly to meet clients who live outside Guelph. 

Alternatively, long-distance clients can choose a do-it-yourself option and use Silverscene’s interview, filming and lighting tips to record their own footage before sending it to Robinson to piece together.  

Whatever option one chooses, Robinson said the movie she creates will be unlike any in a family’s collection.

“(I’m) trying to make any sort of statement in my films – I am just trying to meet the needs of the family and have their stories captured forever.”