Ethical Wills: As Large As Life


Iris Wagner of Memoirs Productions says film is a uniquely powerful medium for expressing emotion. “People get books ghost-written but nothing can compare to seeing someone’s face when they’re talking about the birth of their first child.”

Making a bespoke feature film of your life can be an effective means of transmitting your accumulated wisdom to future generations.

The most painfully finite commodities in human experience must surely be the memories and values of your loved ones once they’re gone.

That may be why a new type of production firm is gaining traction: legacy films producing ethical wills. Unlike a financial or a living will, an ethical will can be handed down through generations of a family indefinitely, passing on wisdom, expressions of love, memories and simply a reflection of life experiences from older family members to descendants.

The ethical will has been around since Biblical times. In Genesis 49 just before Jacob dies, he gathers his sons outside his tent to reflect upon his memories and give them advice. More modern examples include Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, Steve Jobs’ commencement address at Stanford University in 2005 and even Baz Luhrmann’s memorable single, ‘Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)’.

And by far the best medium for transmitting your pearls of wisdom to future generations, says Iris Wagner, founder of Memoirs Productions, is on a high-definition digital video camera that can be stored within an archival DVD.

“I believe everyone should tell their own story from their own lips and the best way to do that is on camera so you can see the emotions in their face,” said Quebec-based former financier Wagner. “People get books ghost-written but nothing can compare to seeing someone’s face when they’re talking about the birth of their first child. You can’t capture that kind of emotion any other way.”

Wagner set up Memoirs Productions after initially exploring corporate film-making. “I approached a billionaire who had just sold his company. He had a fascinating story but at the time was just 51 years old and at the peak of his career — it wasn’t the right time for him. But he suggested that I make a film of his ageing parents. And that is where it started.”

Once she receives a commission, Wagner and her team will spend anywhere between a day and a fortnight interviewing her candidates on and off camera, collating photographs and filming supplemental footage. She says: “We make them feel like stars — it’s such fun!” Then Wagner takes the material to her broadcast-quality suite where she spends a few days editing the feature film.

“I sculpt it into the right story to tell for that person. I find the anecdotes that really exemplify their lives,” explained Wagner.

Once the film is ready, Wagner will invite the family to a private boutique cinema for the night and screen a red-carpet preview. “We provide Champagne and popcorn, and get bunches of roses for the stars. The family love it. It’s a wonderful way of uniting the generations.”

This sort of service does not come cheap. An 80-minute film with all the works costs six figures, although films have been known to surpass a US$1 million price tag. Wagner’s clients are mainly North American FTSE 100 families, frequently billionaires. But if you can afford it this will be “a priceless cherished gift for future generations”, she says.

Meanwhile in the UK, Bucket List Film is another such company helping to create archival memories, at a more affordable £6,000–28,000 a film. The brainchild of Mike Balfour OBE, the multi-millionaire entrepreneur behind gym-chain Fitness First and property club The Hideaways, Bucket List Film captures visual legacies for families and corporates.

The idea came to Balfour when he was attending a friend’s memorial service last year.

“Everyone there was saying what a great guy he was, how much he achieved, what a great dad he had been,” said Balfour. “He was extremely successful in business and had two very young children. But all the family has left of him are photographs, newspaper articles and memories that will fade in time, and that his children will soon forget.”

It occurred to Balfour that it would have been great if he had made a film of his life, so as his children grew up they could learn what he looked like, how he sounded and his view of life and maybe give them some advice from his experiences.

As for the name of the company, he says that many clients feel that their life has been a great adventure and they want a record of it. “It’s a bit like a permanent record that you’ve ticked off your Bucket List. It can be quite emotional when you see it all on screen.”

The experience can stir up powerful emotions, Wagner agrees. “Once, I was interviewing on camera a very stoic, ex-military man in his 80s. His children, in their 50s, had mentioned that their father always donated to juvenile diabetes but they never knew why. I asked him and he just welled up. He said he had a younger brother who died aged three from juvenile diabetes. It broke their mother’s heart, who herself died a few years later. From that day onwards he vowed to always support juvenile diabetes. When we showed that clip to the entire family in the movie theatre, there was not a dry eye to be seen. It was an incredibly emotional experience for everyone there, myself and the film crew included.”

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