Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tongue-tied and full of stories.

Earlier this week, I interviewed an elderly gentleman. Prior to the day of the interview, there was a lot of email correspondence and calls put in between his wife and me... his wife being the one who commissioned the Video Biography in the first place.

Her main cause of worry was that her husband would not stop talking once he got started. And she feared that that would make it extremely tricky for me to steer the conversation from one topic to the other. Now that's valuable insight to have on your subject - and it allowed for me to customize my questions to his life yes, but also to his personality. And I approached the day with grit of steel and a determination to have a fruitful interview no matter what.

What I hadn't been told was that the husband had had a series of small strokes in the not so distant past, and this had left his memory quite jagged... and by his own admission, in a state of affairs he wouldn't have chosen for himself. Nonetheless, he was bursting with stories to share. Before the camera went on, he took me on a tour of the house... and we paused at walls with little bits of history hanging from them, and an office that looked like a treasure trove of memorabilia accumulated over decades of a life well spent. It spanned across generations, continents, countries, dictatorships, monarchy, democracy... it was like getting an insider's view into a history text-book. And he had lived through a lot of it - and knew of ancestors who had lived through even more.

This is going to be a great interview, I thought to myself.

But when he was seated comfortably in his favorite chair in the corner of the living room he always claimed for his own... and I had him nicely framed in my camera... something changed. He became guarded. And not very forthcoming with information. I wondered where the man who talked too much was hiding! In past experience I've had some people who take a while to warm up to being interviewed on camera... so I persisted and in his defense, he tried to answer the questions as best he could. But I was yet unable to capture a true reflection of his personality.

When the first tape got over, I paused the interview in order to load a new tape. In this brief 5-minute interruption, the gentleman got extremely chatty. He started to tell me stories of his grandparents from his childhood - stories that he hadn't shared when I had interviewed him about them. So without announcing that we were now recording the conversation, I pressed the red button - and lo and behold, I managed to get a lot of stories out of him - as well as a feel of the person he is by asking about his viewpoint on several world events.

Of course the time came when this subterfuge had to come to an end and I had to revert to drawing his attention to the camera - instantly, he transformed into a grave man.

But in those few moments, we achieved something that would make it all worthwhile.

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