When Howard Fishman wanted to preserve the struggles and triumphs of his father, Jack, a scientist whose wartime travels took him from Krakow to Siberia to Shanghai to, eventually, the U.S., he turned to his friend and Upper West Side neighbor, Andrew Suhl, who had a long history of working in film and television.
The result was several hours worth of video, shot three years ago, that Suhl and his partner, Walter Schlomann, intended to present more like a documentary than a monologue or storytelling session at a family gathering.
“We realized pretty early on that to make it interesting it had to be more than just an interview,” said Schlomann. “We collected the family’s archival material, old films, photos, documents and integrated it into the video so it becomes something like you see on TV.”
Adds Suhl: “Like an A&E bio or a PBS bio.”
As a result of their experience the pair, who under the banner of Salt and Pepper Media has collaborated on corporate projects for companies like Canon, Cablevision, Bayer and American Express, launched Family Voices Media as a sideline.
Video projects are commissioned as gifts for bar mitzvahs, weddings and anniversaries, or just out of concern for preserving a family member’s legacy. Schlomann and Suhl serve clients, with a particular emphasis on those in the Jewish community, who want to make sure that ancestors’ stories and the legacy they represent — usually preserved only in human memory — are transferred to something less ephemeral.
“In the Jewish world we’ve sort of been ingrained in a sense to pass down stories from generation to generation, so I think there’s a built in factor of interest,” says Schlomann.
In a recently completed video featuring four members of the Berger family, Judy Tawil recalls singing the songs she had learned in Hebrew school for her overjoyed immigrant grandfather, who didn’t speak English and died when she was just 8.
“His eyes had a twinkle and sometimes he would get up form his chair and do a little dance and after we would snuggle in his lap and eat the rugelach that my mother baked,” says Tawil, who grew up in Scranton, Pa. “My memories of those Shabboses in my zeyde’s room are the happiest Shabboses I spent in my life.”
When Tawil’s eldest brother Charles, who was an executive at HJ Heinz Company and the Scott’s Miracle-Gro Company, took ill and was hospitalized waiting for a transplant, the filmmaking team went to his hospital room tentatively in hopes of getting some testimony from him.
“His family was afraid he wouldn’t have the energy,” said Schlomann. “But he rose like Prometheus and gave us six hours of unadulterated family history, his perspective on [President Barack] Obama, and everything else. Two weeks later, he died.”
The experience, said Schlomann, is instructive in that it shows that preserving family legacies can’t be an item that lingers too long on a family’s agenda.
“The second you get in your head that it’s a good idea to preserve the stories of your parents or grandparents, the clock is ticking,” he says. “Whether you do it with us or [on your own].”
Suhl and Schlomann are both in their early 50s. “Many people our age, for a school project, may have made an audio tape of their grandparents, and that tape is now like a treasure,” Schlomann said. “Now that technology has changed, what would somebody give to see their great grandparents in the Old Country now like we can see it on video.”
Adds Suhl, “with video you get not only the voice but the dimple on the chin, the accent, and you shoot in their house.”
A project generally takes six to eight weeks to complete from initial meeting, depending on the amount of archival material to be added. It’s not for those with tight budgets. While a straight interview with minimal editing can run about $3,000, a full 90-minute documentary-style DVD costs between $10,000 and $15,000.
As a byproduct of the video, Family Voices Media also provides digital versions of the old photos used in the video for better preservation.
In her testimonial, Judy Tawil notes that as a result of the day spent interviewing her older brother, “As much as we were nervous about taping him, he wanted to talk about his life and it was just in time … I watched his children watching it, and they have some of their father still on that tape.
“I feel like I gave my brother just a little bit of what he gave me in my life. I gave him a day of joy.