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Documentarian brings cinematic approach to telling family stories

Sharing legacies on film can help family members connect across the generations

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Jamie Yuenger understands the power of storytelling. Her niche media company, StoryKeep, has been creating legacy films and private podcasts for ultra-high-net-worth families and enterprises since 2010, bringing to life the personal stories that define a family.

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“Humans are totally wired for stories,” says Yuenger, who has worked with more than 80 families, including a member of the Birks family in Montreal. “That’s how we remember things, because when we’re told a story as it relates to a family value, we’re much more likely to integrate that and feel we own it as part of our identity.”

Her clients are most often looking to honour someone’s life and understand their place in the family constellation. Or they are younger and long to know more about their parents or grandparents and the family’s history. Others want to document a family estate’s architectural heritage or art collection.

“When there’s only one person who knows the family stories, then there is an impetus to share,” says Yuenger. “The people telling their stories often want to pass on not just the family history but the values of whatever got them to where they are in life. They’ve realized they have something significant to say and want to take the time needed to do this.”

Many ways to tell a story

Objects or images can also be useful to draw out the past. Yuenger recently interviewed someone who in the 1950s went on an African safari, and Yuenger included the family’s eight-millimeter film of her travels in the production.

“I can’t tell you what life it injected into that film, for the family to see this now very matronly person as a spirited young woman in her early 20s in that environment,” says Yuenger. “Sometimes before filming, we’ll just walk around the house with a family member and ask questions about an object or a piece of art on the wall, and it reminds them of a story.”

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Jamie Yuenger
Jamie Yuenger

She might also coach a member of the family’s fourth generation to interview someone in the second –grandchildren interviewing their grandparents, for instance – so they become an integral part of the process.

“It’s not just about the final product but the creation of it as well,” she says. “It’s really about understanding what the goals of the family are and being able to deliver on that in a beautiful and compelling way.”

Discretion is a top priority

Most people hear about StoryKeep through a financial advisor, family office or private bank that recommends commissioning a project as a way to strengthen communication in a meaningful and positive way.

“A lot of family advisors work with families to pinpoint their values,” says Yuenger. “StoryKeep is another tool to help families better understand themselves.”

Discretion is a top priority. StoryKeep is a family-owned business led by Yuenger and her husband, Piet Hurkmans, who hire top-level pros to work on location.

“When family comes to us, they are commissioning legacy projects of some kind and they know we will keep their stories private,” says Yuenger. “They can share those very intimate stories knowing that the audience is a very select, small group of people, mainly their own family members.”

StoryKeep spent a week filming in the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec.
StoryKeep spent a week filming in the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec.

Film crews go through an onboarding process with the firm, so they understand the work culture and expectations. That’s important as they’re welcomed into the client’s homes and will likely be sitting down with the family over tea and snacks at the end of the day.

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“We’re very niche in the world of filmmaking,” says Yuenger. “Most people who work for us are dedicated freelancers in the sense that they are project-based. But they also work on Netflix series and other documentary film projects, so they bring that inspiration and outside expertise.”

Podcasts work for families, too

While most projects are in North America, Yuenger recently moved to the Netherlands, so the firm has begun working with European families as well.

And when COVID-19 limited travel for filming, the firm added private podcasting as another means to serve families, organizations and businesses.

“A private podcast allows many more people and more generations to share something and have their voice heard,” says Yuenger. “It can be a very powerful and simple tool because it can also be completely produced remotely. Instead of my camera in your living room, it can just be a half-hour phone conversation that could potentially be broken up into three short episodes.”

StoryKeep interviewing subjects for a tribute film in New York City.
StoryKeep interviewing subjects for a tribute film in New York City.

Podcasting can also be used to outline a family’s history in the onboarding of new board members, for instance, or for people who have married into the family.

“A 45-minute film needs to have a storyline, but the family or business could have many different things they want to communicate,” says Yuenger. “Private podcasting lets them do that. You can do an episode on this or that and people can listen to it on the go, in their own time and space – like a moveable feast of stories and ideas.”

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