[10 January 2014]
Every person you meet has a story worth telling if you just take the time to listen. This is the simple, profound premise behind Listening is an Act of Love: A StoryCorps Special. The meaningful half-hour special, which originally aired on PBS stations on Thanksgiving Day 2013, is now available on DVD. While it is, admittedly, unlikely to motivate repeat viewings, the beautiful message that comes from this well-executed StoryCorps film is profound and potent enough to stick with you for a lifetime. Everyone should see it and, no pun intended, listen to its lovely tidings.
StoryCorps was founded in 2003 by New Yorker Dave Isay, with the glorious ambition of providing everyday people from all walks of life with the opportunity to share, record and preserve their stories. As a result, StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind.
Family or friends pose the questions and a loved one gives the answers; it’s that simple, but the results can be remarkable. They talk about where and how they grew up, their memories of their family, and their most significant life experiences. Correspondingly, the intimate conversations reveal the kind of fascinating information we often acquire about our favorite celebrities and may not know at all about our own mother or grandfather.
Over the past decade StoryCorps has managed to collect and archive more than 45,000 interviews from nearly 90,000 participants. Each conversation is recorded on a CD for its participants to share and is also preserved at the Library of Congress. Segments from some of those interviews are eventually broadcast on NPR.
Listening is an Act of Love, the first animated film from StoryCorps, takes the thousands of interviews that have been recorded as a part of this initiative and selects segments from a mere six of them to serve as fine examples of the magic that can happen during this groundbreaking audio project. Mike and Tim Rauch serve as directors of the film, mixing the audio from the pre-existing StoryCorps interviews with their own quirky brand of animation.
Stylistically, the animation from Tim Rauch is a colorful, simplistic amalgamation of John Kricfalusi’s Ren & Stimpy and classic Hanna-Barbera cartoons. It’s effective but nothing remotely extraordinary. Yet to its credit, it doesn’t manage to get in the way of the genuine, capricious conversations that you’re eavesdropping on.
The stories that come from the six interviews that make up the film are real winners. Tens of thousands of ordinary American people have sat down for an hour or so to record their own stories and filmmakers have chosen their handful of inclusions wisely. While viewers are only given a small smattering of interviews to witness, most of these tales are doozies. They are charming, candid, whimsical, and surprisingly emotional for their brevity.
Cousins reminisce, with much laughter, about their wiry, stern Sunday School teacher. A mother and son discuss how her father shunned her at age 17 for getting pregnant and he, in turn, shares the challenges that accompanied his decision to “come out”. A feisty, elderly lady discusses her life as a young woman with her son and granddaughter; she says surprising, amusing things like, “I always lied to get out of school because a lot of boyfriends were after me. I was still young; I wasn’t bad looking then.” (We learn that she passed away just a few weeks after the entertaining and revealing interview.)
A formerly homeless man recounts his battle with alcoholism with the stranger-turned-friend who took him in and changed his life. A high school teacher interviews one of his students, now in college, about growing up poor and trying to help his mother out by making extra money while he was just in elementary school.
When Noe Rueda says, “I told her, ‘Mom, I know you don’t have money. So, here’s fifteen bucks I made. She turned off the stove and started crying,” you just might want to cry, too. That’s the appeal of these stories. The authenticity of the tales makes them identifiable while the animation brings the characters to life. If you can’t relate to the particular situation, you can surely identify with the emotional connection.
The most fascinating conversation features a young woman who happens to experience short-term memory loss so often that she has to carry index cards with her at all times just to remember, for example, the last time she ate lunch. Along with her boyfriend, they discuss the downsides of her condition but they also manage to recall, funnily enough, that she was tricked into finishing the New York City Marathon because she couldn’t remember how long she’d been running.
Framing these intimate conversations is a delightful, insightful interview between StoryCorps founder Dave Isay and his nine-year-old nephew, Benji. It’s full of the sort of wisdom that our modern culture needs.
When asked about Isay’s work, he says, “You can find the most amazing stories from regular people. All you have to do is ask them about their lives and listen. We can learn so much about people all around us, just by taking the time to have a conversation.”
Insights abound about kindness, curiosity, generosity, and the importance of family.
With any luck, viewers of the film will come away knowing that listening means the world to people. It’s inspiring and refreshing to be reminded that despite our many differences, when you really think about it, we all still have enough common ground to celebrate and connect with. If you can see yourself and see beauty in the stories of strangers, which Listening is an Act of Love effortlessly allows you to do, you can be certain that every voice matters.
Like Isay says in the film, “When you’re curious, treat people with respect, and have just a little courage to ask the important questions, great things are going to happen.” This special will remind you of this truth and, just maybe, inspire you to live it out.
Meanwhile, through this DVD, StoryCorps certainly has the potential to engage and impact a new audience. It’s worth noting that the DVD extras also include a dozen other brief shorts featuring StoryCorps conversations set to the Rauch brothers’ animation. None are better than the half-dozen included in the film, but they are worthy additions, nonetheless. Separate PBS interviews with Isay and the Rauch brothers are also included as special features, which further discuss and affirm what Isay calls the “transformative power of listening”.