Iris Wagner is not a therapist, though she asks lots of questions, and the parents, grandparents, and children she works with almost always gain insight about themselves and each other. And while she helps families plan and ensure their legacies, she’s not a financial advisor. Wagner’s job—or, she’ll assure you, her passion—is making films about her peoples’ lives to preserve forever the stories that made them who they are.
Wagner’s company, Memoirs Productions (www.memoirs.ca), based in Montreal, produces personal and corporate video biographies. Some are lavish, 90-minute videos, entailing months of research and filmed by a large crew on multiple locations over several days—at a cost that begins in the six figures and may go, well, much higher. One client thought it might be nice to have Barbara Walters interview family members, and Wagner said, sure, we can probably get her—“she’s retired now, and she must have a day rate.”
But other Memoirs Productions videos, which can be commissioned for $10,000 or so, are less involved, though no less meaningful to the families for whom they’re produced. These are what have become known as ethical wills—“a record for posterity,” Wagner says. The subjects of these films talk about their lives, their mentors, the lessons they’ve learned, their hopes for the future. “It says, ‘This is me,’” says Wagner.
The idea behind creating an ethical will isn’t new, of course. Families have always looked to older members for wisdom and guidance, and family values—often enshrined in old photographs, letters, home movies, newspaper clippings, awards—get passed from generation to generation. In today’s hectic world, though, it’s easy to lose track of all that. You remember hearing a wonderful story from your grandmother about the day she met your grandfather, but you can’t quite recall where they were at the time, or what she told you he promised her, that very afternoon, when he proposed. Or maybe you had a great time recently with your mom, going through a shirt box full of photos from the 1940s; a picture of your dad got her started on a story you’d never heard, about his first job after the war, when he was desperate to get on with his life and put in 80-hour weeks on a construction crew to save the seed money for the family business you run today. But how much of that will you remember when she, too, is gone? Will you be able to tell the story to your kids, or the grandchildren?
Wagner’s goal, in crafting family biographies, is to make sure the past isn’t lost. “This is not an exercise in ego,” she says, but rather an act of preservation—“the most unselfish thing you can do.” Often, a client will make a gift of Wagner’s “Legacy of Values” service to an elderly parent or grandparent, inviting the family matriarch, for example, to go through the process of remembering, recording, and transmitting her life story. To begin, Wagner asks the film subject to fill out a long questionnaire, then she interviews the person off-camera. “It tends to be a very emotional experience,” she says. Next there’s a one-day shoot at a place the client chooses. It might be a living room or study, the back yard, a porch at the family summer place overlooking the sea. Usually Wagner herself questions the client during three to four hours of filming. Finally, the digital footage is edited down to 30 to 45 minutes of the subject looking directly into the camera and telling her story. The final version, as well as the longer filmed interview, is transferred to a gold-plated archival DVD.
What families choose to preserve, of course, varies widely. In some videos, people simply discuss where they’ve been and what they’ve done, describing friendships, accomplishments, and values. Others may be more directly instructive, such as the client who talked about her time-management skills, explaining that “if you take a project and do a little bit of this and a little bit of that, every single day, after five days of doing a little bit of project A, you’ve done a lot on project A by Friday.”
With the high-ticket productions, Wagner does a private screening, complete with champagne and popcorn, at a venue of the client’s choosing. For the ethical wills, the showing is up to you, though with virtually every video Wagner has produced, clients have immediately shared the finished product with their families. While the ultimate goal is to preserve family history, it’s inevitably illuminating to listen to an 80-year-old grandparent talk about all he has seen and done in eight decades on the planet. “These screenings are highly charged, extremely loving occasions,” Wagner says.
Recently, Wagner lost her first client; she had been 99 during the filming, and 101 when she died. Wagner worried that the family would find it too painful to watch the video, but in fact within a few hours of the death, everyone was gathered around a television, watching, laughing, crying—and remembering. That, Wagner says, is exactly the point.