I recently discovered a treasure trove of family home videos stretching back almost 40 years.
The earliest video was from my parents wedding in 1981 in São Paulo. The footage was grainy and barely in color, and looked like it was taken by a professional crew. Consumer camcorders hadn’t even been invented yet.
The more than 100 hours of video went on to document my birth and childhood in Southern California, me and my three siblings’ early years through the 80s and 90s, right up until our recent family vacations, birthdays, and holidays. Thousands of precious memories meticulously documented across four decades of life.
The first commercial consumer-grade camcorder, the Sony Betamovie BMC-100P, was released in 1983. It ushered in a revolution in collective memory. For the first time ever, families around the world could afford to document their lives in video form. College TV studios could teach film classes, and amateur video hobbyists could produce full-length films at a reasonable cost.
But after this initial surge in innovation, the field of consumer video recording stagnated. Most of these recordings remained stuck in obsolete formats lost in storage. As consumers we’ve lacked the tools to edit our footage together into a coherent story, and to share it in ways that fit into our busy lives.
This has always made the title of “filmmaker” a very rare and exclusive position. You need expensive equipment, and a crew to carry around and operate it. You need a dozen specialized kinds of expertise, which demands a sizable budget. Making a film has required the vision and leadership of a CEO combined with the attention to detail and technical expertise of an engineer.
The technological boundaries that long separated amateur “home videos” from professional movie-making have become increasingly blurred, and even erased.
Through the Internet and social media, we all now have access to a global distribution system unprecedented in human history. Our smartphones have capabilities until recently reserved only for the highest end professional cameras. Our computers are multimedia studios equipped with the same software used by Hollywood studios.
The latest Apple iPhones are the first smartphones to come equipped with Dolby Vision, a technology used by top Hollywood filmmakers for blockbuster feature films.
We are in the midst of a revolution in personalized filmmaking as people awaken to the power of the tools they have access to. It is a narrative renaissance, connecting us back to our deep roots as storytellers out on the primordial savannah. Except this time, unshackled from the limits of space and time.
We are seeing the rise of “personal documentaries” – long-form, personal, narrative-driven videos told through a particular perspective, combining the objectivity of traditional documentary filmmaking with the intimacy of social media.
Most of us have gotten used to sharing small snippets of our lives with our social media networks – an Instagram story of a meal we’re having, a Snap of a fun moment with friends, and maybe even a YouTube video about something interesting we’ve learned. The natural next step is to start to combine these snippets into longer, richer, more engaging and meaningful stories.
A convergence of technological trends is making this kind of synthesis possible for the first time:
- Professional-quality smartphone-based cameras (with software-based features like motion stabilization, exposure control, and augmented reality that once required expensive hardware)
- Plentiful storage space with solid-state memory and cheap cloud storage
- Mobile chips and apps that can handle sophisticated editing right on mobile devices
- Prosumer software available as an affordable monthly subscription
- Social media networks designed specifically for video, with options for monetization (including YouTube, Vimeo, Twitch, Patreon, and Onlyfans)
- Consumer UX design influencing professional video-editing tools, making them much more user-friendly and intuitive
- More powerful consumer computers that can run editing software without requiring high-end upgrades
Traditional documentaries are films that “document reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction, education, or maintaining a historical record.” Now that we all carry high-resolution cameras with us at all times, documentation is becoming a part of everyday life.
But because the videos we record are personal, they also blur the line between fact and fiction. The goal is not to create a factual record for the history books, but to share an event, a story, or a cause from our personal lives, through our own lens.
I discovered in my own personal documentary film project, on the life and artistic career of my father Wayne Forte, that I could completely change the meaning of a scene through editing. Sometimes the difference of one or two seconds in the placement of a cut could shift it from sad to hopeful, harsh to sarcastic, deceptive to authentic. I quickly realized that there was no “objective” version of events – the narrative had to be crafted, not just captured.
Video is a uniquely powerful medium because it is immersive, while also being shared. It engages both the visual and auditory senses across large numbers of people in a synchronized way, just like the real world. It touches us on an emotional level, allowing us to see through others’ eyes and walk in their shoes.
Personal documentaries use stories – the basic unit of meaning for humans – to inspire, educate, entertain, and change perspectives.
We are living in a time of “narrative collapse.” The “big narratives” told by governments, traditional media, and other large institutions that have always been the guiding pillars of society have broken down.
A new generation of “small narratives” are emerging to take their place. Just as startups “disrupt” established companies in the business world with simpler, more innovative products, these “narrative startups” disrupt official narratives with more tailor-made, flexible stories that react much more quickly to every news cycle.
This fragmentation and loss of a grand narrative has mostly been framed as a negative trend. We’ve clearly seen the impact of filter bubbles and conspiracy theories, as people grasp for any sense of coherence. But I see a silver lining. We have the chance to equip people with the tools to write their own stories, in their own way, through their own lens.
The short-form videos that have exploded across YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok in recent years represented the first wave of democratized video. They’ve demonstrated a stunning level of creativity, but also revealed the pitfalls of “contextless” storytelling.
Clips taken on the street are edited to inflame passions, and spread around the world in hours. Soundbites are extracted from interviews and spun to misrepresent someone’s position. Stripped of their context, these clips lose the details that might give nuance to the story of “what happened.”
I see personal documentary filmmaking as the rebuilding of that context – weaving together a new story about what happened and what’s happening out of bits and pieces of audio and video. It won’t return us to a single, “official” narrative that everyone agrees on. That narrative has shattered into a million fragments. The rebuilding has to take place at the individual level, as we each put the pieces back together in a way that makes sense to us.
The democratization and personalization of video-making is part of a much broader trend.
Computers became personal computers. Productivity became personal productivity. Finance became personal finance. And of course, knowledge management is evolving into personal knowledge management.
As each of these disciplines have become miniaturized, democratized, and customized down to the level of a single individual, they have unleashed both daunting challenges and priceless opportunities. I believe the tools of filmmaking are crossing a similar threshold.
They will allow us to answer new kinds of questions:
- What will happen when people are given the opportunity to tell their own stories?
- What hidden narratives will come to light once the gatekeepers don’t get to decide what stories are worth telling?
- How will flows of money, attention, time, and effort be shaped and redirected once those stories are free to emerge?
- What will people pay attention to and how will they live once they have an abundance of stories to choose from, not just a few?
- What new professions and even industries would arise if we saw storytelling as a practical craft, with principles and rules and models?
When you change how you pay attention, the things you pay attention to change. Filmmaking is nothing if not the ability to shape how others pay attention. I suspect that that ability is one of the most powerful untapped sources of change in the world today.
What kinds of films could we make?
Here are a few ideas for how personal documentaries could be used, including examples:
Personal autobiographies could be a way of transforming trauma into healing, by allowing people to retell their own stories as victors, instead of victims. They could be empowered to highlight everything that is beautiful and worthy in their lives, even if they’ve experienced terrible abuses. Sharing one’s story can be a powerful route to healing.
In Unrest, Jennifer Brea tells her own story of dropping out of Harvard due to Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (commonly known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), and going on a journey to diagnose and understand a condition that none of her doctors recognize. She created it largely while bedridden, collecting the stories of others she found online suffering from the same condition. This film morphs from patient history to advocacy as Brea realizes that millions of people around the world suffer from this misunderstood disease.
Personal dramatizations could be used to recreate scenes from the distant or recent past, allowing others to feel what it was really like to be there. We could develop deeper empathy for the victims of the Holocaust, or the activists of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, or the victims of the Massacre at Wounded Knee, or any event that played an important part in the historical consciousness.
The Battle of Orgreave is an hour-long film by Mike Figgis on the 1986 reenactment of a clash between striking miners and police during the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5. Although it pre-dates smartphones, and is closer in production quality to a home video, it illustrates how we can relive parts of our history and document those recreations for future generations using video.
Personal nature documentaries could show the impact of climate change not just on distant, exotic locales like glaciers or the rainforest, but on the closest local environments. Imagine the impact of a documentary showing how the forests, streams, coastlines, and animal species you see every day in your own town are already suffering from climate change.
In Learning to See: The World of Insects, Jake Oelman documented the life and second career of his father, psychologist-turned-photographer Robert Oelman. While telling the story of how his father moved to the rainforest to become a nature photographer, he also tells the story of his father’s main subject: insects. Endangered and underappreciated, these tiny creatures represent one of the most important fronts in the climate change crisis. By mixing the personal with the universal, Learning to See pulls viewers in from both sides.
Watch the trailer below, and rent or buy it on Apple iTunes:
Personal biographies could document the lives and work of important figures in your local community. There is a vast swath of people who have had a major impact on their community, yet aren’t famous enough to attract a big budget film project. Capturing their stories could help us understand where we came from, how much people sacrificed to give us the lives we have, and inspire future generations of leaders, activists, scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians, and more.
In My Brother Jordan, filmmaker Justin Robinson set out to document the life of his brother Jordan, who had passed away due to cancer. The film is made up of more than 100 interviews with family and friends who knew Jordan, plus excerpts from many hours of home videos. In other words, it used personal relationships, existing media, and affordable equipment to tell a personal story that has been viewed almost 10 million times.
Personal advocacy could see important social issues highlighted in a new way or from a new angle. Imagine watching the story of a teenager struggling with the decision of whether to get an abortion. Or a small business owner trying to stay afloat under the crush of burdensome taxes. All points along the political spectrum deserve empathy, even if you don’t agree that they deserve priority. I think it would help us understand each other more if we understood the stories that led us to where we are today.
Backstage Capital – jOURney tells the story of up-and-coming venture capital firm Backstage Capital, founded and led by Arlan Hamilton. Backstage is on a mission to invest in companies led by women, People of Color, and LGBTQ founders, who typically receive less than 10% of venture funding. Made during the COVID pandemic, it is clearly compiled mostly from amateur footage shot on subjects’ personal smartphones. But it manages to effectively both tell the remarkable story of the firm’s and founder’s trajectory so far, and also advocate for the wider industry to invest more in minority founders.
Personal futurism could be used by individuals or businesses to tell stories about how the future could be. Imagine how much more effective it would be to persuade people to invest in a certain future for a business, product, team, community, or neighborhood if you could portray viscerally “what it will be like” to build that park, invest in that district, or fund that public transport line. We could multiply potential futures, test them out, and compare them against each other using the closest thing to virtual reality that exists on a wide scale, which is video.
This 6-minute YouTube video SpaceX’s Starlink: Global Internet Begins explains the background of the satellite-based internet service called Starlink, currently being launched by space launch company SpaceX. By providing a window into how such a service would function, how it would look, and what it would cost, this video gives viewers a chance to think through the many implications it would have on every aspect of society.
Telling our story
My mom and I decided to make a highlight reel of the best moments from our archive of home videos.
The footage was valuable because she’d captured everything, but that very fact meant that the gems were difficult to find. There were hours of video documenting entire soccer games, or babies sleeping for 30 minutes straight, or school plays in which we barely appeared. There was far too much footage to watch in any reasonable amount of time.
My mom shipped the recordings – which included everything from disks to cassettes to solid state storage to ancient VHS tapes – to a home video digitization service called iMemories. Within a few weeks they were all converted into digital format and uploaded to a website where we could watch them on demand, like a private YouTube channel.
From there, I started watching the videos one at a time, downloading the best of them onto my computer, and importing them into Adobe Premiere to start making edits. I hope to have the first in a series of highlight reels ready by the end of the year, for us to watch together as a family over Christmas.
As I watched video after video, it struck me that our family has a story. It might not mean anything to anyone else, but it is priceless to us. It is the story of where we come from, how we became who we are today, and the moments along the way that were most meaningful. It is a story that I want to be able to share with my children and their children. And with the gifts of technology, I will now have the ability to do so.
The power of immersive, visual storytelling is too great for anyone to ignore. It is the power to change people’s perception of reality, which might as well be reality itself.
The ability for anyone anywhere to tell any story and distribute it instantly for free around the world is as revolutionary as the printing press.
No one is immune.
No one is too late.
Everyone has a story to tell.
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