By Arielle Nobile

Focusing on Connections in Family Documentary Films

I’m a strange bird in many ways, but one such way is that I started thinking about and imagining my grandchildren when I was 8 years old. (I also had a list of names for the 26 children I would one day have, but that’s a story for another article). I guess you could call me hopeful. I believed that I would one day grow up, have children, they would have children, and I’d pass something down to those kids. And at the age of 8 I was not thinking about passing down money. However, I was definitely thinking about my legacy.

When I was 9 I started typing my autobiography on my family’s typewriter. What did this early autobiography detail? My birth, of course, and anything else I felt that had happened to me of consequence in those first 9 years. It was a relatively short story.

I nearly died when I was born. An undetected blood incompatibility with my mother and severe jaundice landed me back in the hospital, grey and limp, at just 2 days old. Hooked up to machines that revived me and saved my life, all my blood was taken out of my body, via my ankle, and new blood was placed into my body through my skull. Growing up knowing that I survived, what I now consider to have been a near-death experience, has always given me a sense of purpose. And I believe that purpose and legacy are intrinsically linked.

My desire to tell my story at such a young age, and the fact that I’ve done some kind of writing ever since I was 9 with the idea that one day future generations might read my ideas, goes beyond my ego’s desire that I have to be remembered. I think it is a spiritual longing for connection beyond time and space.

One of the questions I love to ask people has to do with the meaning of life, Why are we here? What is it all for? I like to ask this question to everyone, regardless of their age, and in fact the first documentary I ever made in high school was on this very topic. To me, this is the essential question: What are we here for? What is the purpose of it all?

I don’t think it is a coincidence that I have devoted my life to asking questions and to helping people reach both forwards and backwards in time. In linking the past to the present to the future, I help people make connections between the important questions that plague us all at various times in our lives. It is this type of legacy that is most interesting to me. It is this legacy that to me has the most impact. Pondering the deep questions is what gives my life purpose. Helping others to do the same gives my life meaning.

Google defines legacy as, “Money or property left to a person by someone who has died.” Other definitions on Google are “Something that is a result of events in the past” and “Something that is a part of your history or that remains from an earlier time.”

If I could, I would add an entry to the dictionary. I’d define legacy as “That which gives meaning to our lives that gets left behind when we are no more.” Our legacy is what lasts beyond us: the spirit, essence, and experiences that help guide and shape generations of your family.

Today there are as many tools for distilling and passing down this type of legacy as there are songbirds. Why do I stick with documentary film as my tool of choice for my own family and for my clients? It is the only one I know of that comes close to the feeling you get when you spend an afternoon drinking iced tea on the patio with your favorite great aunt. You reminisce, share confidences, imagine the future. It’s a timeless moment. This is what it’s like to create a Legacy Film.

Documentary film is the only medium I know of that unites multiple generations of a family in a process to create something tangible together out of intangible treasures — stories, a sense of humor, and that twinkle in the eye of the people we love.

Taking the few hours necessary to sit back and reflect deeply in a guided conversation, about what really matters to us and why, is a priceless journey at the heart of our true legacy as humans. One of my pet peeves is the way that people (myself included) can get caught up in information. We are, after all, living in the information age when questions can be answered with the press of a button and Grandma can be Facetimed to settle a memory dispute just as swiftly.

But for me and my clients, our legacy is not about the information. Yes, it’s about storytelling, and yes, it’s about stories, but it’s not about facts, it’s not about dates, it’s not even about history. Not in the traditional sense. It’s about connections. One of my favorite authors and speakers, Brené Brown, writes: “Connection is why we’re here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”

I think she means connection to self, something higher than ourselves, and each other, but I want to add in the connection to our ancestors and to those who will come after us. We come from one another’s bodies. Our families connect us to one another in ways that can be uplifting or oppressive. A family documentary film is a way to honor the legacies of those who are gone and connect those yet to be born to ourselves and the past. I hope all of this makes you wonder. I hope it gets you to ask yourself some of these questions.

I hope that you think about the ways in which making a family documentary might just be what your family is missing. Imagine if from kindergarten, we were asked, “How do you want to be remembered when you’re gone?”

Imagine what kind of people we would become. I believe that if we all spent a lot more time focusing on our legacy, our purpose, and on how we are going to be remembered, the world would be a very different, much better place. It is my mission to help people do just this.

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 Arielle Nobile is the CEO and Chief Creative Officer of award-winning Legacy Connections Films, which she founded in 2005. LCF has produced over 100 private documentary films, helping clients reflect on how far they have come and where they are going. Before founding LCF, Arielle taught at Piven Theatre and Second City Chicago. Arielle is currently producing a new documentary series, “Belonging in the USA.” If you’d like to learn more about Arielle, see samples of LCF’s work, or engage LCF in a project for your family, please visit