Piecing it all together

Linden Hills filmmaker documents personal histories for families

A gray photo of a young boy, necktie wildly flapping across his white collar shirt, gravitates toward the screen.

As his shoulders fill the frame, a soft fade brings viewers to the same boy seven decades later, in full color, recalling his younger days for an interviewer.

His tie now neatly hung between sides of a gray sport coat, Dr. Raymond Scallen tells the camera about growing up in Southwest, going off to fight in World War II and coming home to practice medicine.

Scallen, born in 1925, is the subject of a new short, personal history documentary by Linden Hills resident Maxine Davis called “A Good Doctor.” The Minnesota Historical Society recently awarded the film “Best Exploration of an Intergenerational Legacy” in an annual contest as part of its Minnesota’s Greatest Generation Project.

“A Good Doctor” is also an example of what Davis, a longtime film production and location manager, hopes to cultivate into a successful small businesses: the family video biography.

“Once our elders are gone, some of these stories are just going to be gone,” Davis said.

She interviewed her 90-year-old mother a couple of years ago about her life growing up in Sioux Falls, S.D. for her first video biography.

“I thought, you know, I’d like to keep my mother’s story alive,” she said.

She then collected family photographs and sought out historical images to accompany her mother’s words.

The finished product, a short, television-style biography of her mother, was eventually circulated to family and friends, whose reactions were enthusiastic.

“People came to me and said, ‘This is really cool.’,” Davis said. “Then I thought, this could be a good business, telling people’s histories.”

Her fledgling film company, Every Life Is a Story, has produced four more since then.

Barbara Rubin-Greenberg watched the video Davis produced about her mother and decided to hire Davis to tell her own parents’ story.

“We wanted their story for ourselves and future generations,” Rubin-Greenberg said.

“She interviewed them both intensely Š about their history, how they met, their values, their stories,” Rubin-Greenberg said.

It was research after the interviews that made the film “extraordinarily unique,” she said.

Davis collected old family photos and movies, interviewed Rubin-Greenberg and her siblings, and then sought out more images from historical societies and museums.

She found photos of places her parents lived and worked, maps of tiny towns where grandparents came from, a photo of a shoe store where her mother worked.

“It was really pretty amazing, and all in 18 minutes,” Rubin-Greenberg said. “My kids said when they watched that it’s like watching a documentary on PBS. It is so professional and so like what you would see on television.”

Rubin-Greenberg, her siblings and parents split the cost of the production, which includes filming, research, writing time as well as fees for obtaining music and photos.

Even though digital video equipment has become more available, producing films is still a laborious effort, from shooting to writing and editing to manufacturing. Davis said people should expect to pay at least $1,000 for a small project.

Video biographies have existed for decades, but the accessibility of digital video cameras and editing equipment has helped spawn a new generation of personal history producers.

Perry Cowen, owner of Once Upon a Time Video Productions of Maple Grove, said he’s been producing video biographies for about two decades. He estimated there were at least 20 companies in Minnesota doing some kind of family history video projects.

“The less expensive companies sometimes put a photo montage to music and call it a biography,” Cowen said.

It’s also possible to do it yourself with a basic digital camcorder and free editing software.

“If you just want the basics, you can do it yourself,” Cowen said.

Written family histories can provide more detail, but video biographies allow an entire family to share an experience at the same time, children and grandparents gathered around a television.

“I feel it’s a privilege to be able to connect these generations,” Davis said.


Dan Haugen can be reached at [email protected] or 436-5088.