Make It Last – Ep 76 – Interview with Steve Besserman of AriJoe Productions
Your legacy goes far beyond the finances and personal items you will leave behind. The real legacy your family will remember you by are the collection of stories, photos, and videos you have gathered over your lifetime. Steve Besserman of AriJoe productions is an award winning documentarian and he assists families in the telling of those stories. AriJoe productions can help you capture the amazing lifetime stories of your loved ones, to share for many generations to come.
Visit AriJoe Productions’ website for more information and to watch some of the amazing documentaries Steve has put together for families and organizations in the community.
Make It Last with Victor Medina is hosted by Victor J. Medina, an estate planning and Certified Elder Law Attorney (CELA®) and Certified Financial Planner™ professional (CFP). Through his law firm and independent registered investment advisory company, Victor provides 360º Wealth Protection Strategies for individuals in or nearing retirement.
Click the link below to listen to the full episode…
Click below to read the full transcript…
Hey, everybody. Welcome back to Make It Last. I’m your host, Victor Medina. I’m so glad that you’ve joined us here today. I am excited for today’s show because I have a guest. His name is Steve Besserman. He is the principal of AriJoe Productions.
He calls himself the chief storyteller. That’s exactly what he is. I wanted to interview him because he’s an individual that started a company that basically helps you capture your loved one’s stories. I think that’s such a fantastic service.
So many times we spend time and effort lining up finances and doing planning. We put wills and trusts in place where really the value of the legacy is in the personal stuff that people bring. Many times that’s captured in their stories.
Whether or not we’re doing an audio recording, a video recording, or what‑have‑you, people are their collections of stories, and what they’re passing on, their values.
I know that in my own practice we used to do something called a priceless conversation which tried to capture some of those values as part of the estate planning process. It’s not something we do any longer, but for a little while it was one of the steps at the end, and people found it to be very valuable.
I wasn’t sure that at my stage in my career that I had the best storytelling skills, I guess. Maybe that’s the reason why I abandoned it, but I am so glad that Steve is doing that. I’ve got to give you the introduction for this clip.
Steve showed up. We had him here as a guest. We prerecorded this interview. He just started talking, so I hit the record button because his stories were fantastic, and I didn’t want to have him to say it again.
What you’re going to hear is me entering in into the conversation. You are going to be eavesdropping to the recording that I hit. In fact, we even talked about it in what we’ve recorded in there. I thought it was important enough just to capture it all at once, and Steve did a great job sharing that.
Without further ado, here is my interview with Steve Besserman of AriJoe Productions.
Victor: Not just because I suppose that they’re older, but did you always want to focus in capturing the stories of the older generation, that you’re not working with elder care population stuff like that?
Steve Besserman: Yeah. It’s a priority in my wheelhouse as is producing video documentaries for small to mid‑sized businesses ‑‑ for marketing purposes, obviously ‑‑ and for nonprofits. I’ve done several projects for nonprofit groups to help them raise awareness and funds.
Those are the three pillars, if you will, of AriJoe. Small to mid‑sized businesses, nonprofits, but, very important, people wanting to capture and share their elder stories.
Victor: Why the elder stories? Is it just because they’re older and they’ve got better stories to tell?
Steve: No, I just think it’s a really precious thing for people. As I said in the little blurb that I provided you, it was really important for me to capture my parents’ story. Of course, they have an incredible, remarkable story, but everybody has a story.
Since I made the film about my parents, whenever I show it, or I come into contact with people who have seen it or find out more about what I do, they slap themselves, and say, “If only I would have sat down with my grandfather. If only I could have captured my aunt’s story about being a seamstress on the Lower East Side in a sweatshop.”
Whatever, everybody has a story. Families very often miss that opportunity while they can still get it. Their parents or grandparents get older or get sicker, or dementia sets in, as it did with my mom. I was very grateful that over 40 years ago, I asked my mom to document her experience. That’s what I used to make the film.
I just think it’s really a precious thing for families. I give presentations now called “What’s your story? Leaving a Legacy.” What I do is tell people…In the end, I give them tips about how they can do it themselves. If they want to hire me, I’m available. They can look at photographs and tell the stories behind the photographs.
They can record their voice. I tell people, “I don’t know about you, but I got a seven‑year‑old granddaughter who knows how to work an iPhone better than I do.” There are ways to capture it. I just stress the importance of what are you going to leave to your family? Of course, monetary things are nice and appreciated.
The most important thing that I think people can leave to their families is their story, because their story is your story.
Victor: That’s awesome. We’ve since abandoned it, but we started a long time ago with this concept called Priceless Conversations. It’s a very similar idea that the legacy you leave behind is more than just money. There are values that are captured in that.
These Priceless Conversations were not necessarily about capturing the history. I think it’s a different approach that you’re taking, and much better.
Ours were really trying to give color to whatever legacy we had stepped behind ‑‑ your hopes and your dreams, the things that you are wishing for as a message to leave behind. Not necessarily a historical record or capturing from a story standpoint.
Steve: Yeah, and your values. I actually think that comes with it. A classic example for me…It’s on my website, and I showed this film in that presentation that I mentioned. In fact, Christy was at the presentation that I made at the AECP anniversary thing over at the senior center, so I show “Bunnie.”
Bunnie, just as an example, was turning 97 when her family engaged me to do her story. Included in her story, toward the end of it, is how she wants to be remembered and what she wants to pass on to her children and grandchildren, particularly grandchildren.
She talks about the importance of kindness, respect, love, and then the family values that she wants her grandchildren to know. Also, about happiness, about what makes you happy in life. Pursuing what makes you happy. Enduring the good times and the bad times, but always keeping hold and keeping close the things that make you happy.
Victor: Do you find that there are benefits also not just to…What I’m hearing is that there are benefits to both sides of the people on the stories. The person who’s leaving behind the story, there’s something rewarding for them doing that, and obviously the people who are receiving that story as well.
They must measure that in different ways, or they must see that maybe in a time…not so much like a time delay, but you don’t really appreciate what that story is until maybe it’s not there for you. Whereas, if you’re giving the story, you appreciate the opportunity to leave that behind. Is that a fair way of saying it?
Steve: I think that’s true. In fact, I collaborated on an article…Do you know Deb Hallisey?
Victor: Oh, sure.
Steve: She’s Advocate for Mom and Dad. Deb writes various articles. She read a book that impressed her, and I can’t remember the author of the book. It was a PhD kind of guy who wrote a book. I think it was called Communicating with Elders.
One chapter of the book dealt with this aspect of reaching a stage in life where people need to…It’s not so much validating your life, but it’s, what are you going to leave behind? What’s your legacy? What’s your contribution to life as you treasure it?
We collaborated on that article because it resonated with me because of what I do. I think it’s, to your point, equally important for the people that leave those stories behind, and it’s certainly a treasure for the people that are on the receiving end of the story.
Victor: What’s the most surprising story that you’ve come across that either was shocking to the person that received it, didn’t know that was what was being talked about, or the person giving it saying, “I’ve never said this before,” where you wouldn’t have expected those two things to…the people in the story to be matched together?
Steve: That’s an interesting question. Are we recording at the moment?
Victor: We are.
Steve: We are? Oh my goodness. [laughs] You sneaky fellow, you. [laughs] Do you edit these at all?
Victor: I do.
Steve: OK. Let’s see, that’s a great question. Actually, I’m wondering if there were any surprises. I would say that each story that I’ve done to date ‑‑ and I suspect that will continue with other stories that do for people ‑‑ I would say has that element of, “Oh, gee, I didn’t know that,” for the family.
I go in with a set list of standard questions.
Victor: Just to guide them along.
Steve: Yeah, to guide them along. My questions are never heard…I’m never seen or heard, which is when I’m at my best, by the way.
Victor: OK. [laughs]
Steve: Inevitably, as I get to know the person…I try to have a little bit of a consultation prior, so that I have an idea of where my questions might lead. As I’m interviewing people and asking them questions, inevitably it leads to other questions based on their answers and what they did.
I’ll take Bunnie for an example. Bunnie has four kids. I’m happy to say that she just passed her 101 birthday.
Victor: Oh, my goodness.
Steve: I’ve been adopted as an honorary member of the family for what I did for them.
Victor: Absolutely you have.
Steve: Her children, who were in their 70s, [laughs] they all had, certainly, pieces of her story. There’s a big age gaps in the difference. Some of them are 9, 10 years apart. They certainly each had aspects of her life story. They all had boxes of photographs that they ended up trying to digitize over the years.
Nobody can tell somebody’s story better [laughs] than the person themself. Inevitably, in the course of interviewing people and capturing that on video, things will come up that are a surprise to some members of the family. It’s like, “Oh. Gee, I didn’t know that.” or they didn’t know the details associated with that. It puts it into an experiential perspective.
Do you know what I mean? They might know just word of mouth or as they were growing up “Oh, yeah. I remember Uncle Harry” or whatever. When they hear it from the person and told in detail, very often there are things that come up that they were either unaware of or unaware of the significance or the details associated with that.
Victor: When we did that Priceless Conversations in my practice, and then even as you’re talking now, the model in my head is always my wife’s grandmother because my wife’s grandmother has one of those stories. She’s one of eight siblings. She came up, worked washing clothes on the bin and hanging them and playing a seamstress.
Anyway, she brought over all of her seven siblings, and she paid for all of them. That story was kind of known, but I remember there was one point in time where people didn’t realize that one out of the four kids had a father that nobody really knew about. It was like a Jerry Springer moment. It was a Maury Povich moment when it was finally revealed.
She also had all kinds of stories. She’s been widowed twice, both by men who were in the Merchant Marines and died on her. It’s just this crazy story, and my wife loves capturing it. The thing that I took away from it is more of this democratization of these stories.
That’s very commonplace. It was very special to the family. They’re like, “Oh, my goodness this is something to be revealed,” but, at same time, makes us all human because we all have that little grit that’s going underneath as an undercurrent. You must see that a lot, having conducted all of the interviews and being able to survey them.
Steve: Yeah, I do. I see it in just about every story I tell. I go back to my parents’ story as an example. I was certainly aware from a very young age that my parents were survivors of the Holocaust. I knew what that meant. [laughs] I got to know what that meant.
Victor: Did they hide that from you?
Steve: There are many types of survivors that cannot bring themselves to talk about it with close family members. My dad was one of those. He was from Poland, the first country to be invaded. He was in a series of concentration and heavy labor camps and slavery for five‑and‑a‑half years and lost family. Sure, a lot of horrible, horrible things and couldn’t bring himself to talk about it.
My mom, on the other hand, was very vocal about her experiences to both my sister and I. I grew up hearing some of these stories and experiences. My mom had terrible nightmares. She would wake up screaming in the middle of the night calling for her mother whom she lost at Auschwitz and…
Victor: Did she share your father’s stories or only her own?
Steve: No. She didn’t hear his stories because he wasn’t able to. Really, my dad started to talk about it when I embarked on making the film.
My mom picked up his story at the point where they met, obviously, but then gave me some background as to what had happened to him, which I then validated and detailed a little bit more when I was making the film and I would ask my dad questions based on what my mom told me.
Especially, it was over 40 years ago that I asked my mom to document this and she filled several notebooks with her memories of her story, which became extremely valuable later in years when she was diagnosed with dementia and began to lose her memories, including having written those five or six notebooks full of her memories. That’s what I used to tell the story.
When I went off to Europe to go back to all the places of the experience and use my mom’s words from that post facto diary to tell the story, that’s when my dad started to come out and tell more of it because, first of all, he was aware that my mom could no longer do that.
He was filling in some blanks based on questions that I asked him in terms of, “When that was happening with mom, what was happening with you?” and that kind of thing, and things that I discovered in Europe when I was there, so I followed up with questions.
Victor: Was there a measure of release at all from him having to share them? He held it so tight for so long.
Steve: I think it was absolutely cathartic for him, as it was for my mom. Even though she was sharing those stories as we were growing up, the detail that she put into those notes, there were some surprises for me. I knew a lot, but I didn’t know everything about that experience. It was helpful to me.
My sister as well knew a lot of the stories, but we both got a lot out of those journals, and then, certainly, transposition to the film.
Victor: Do you find that’s common with the other clients and the elders, that there is a cathartic element to sharing some of this?
Steve: I do. I believe so. The article that Deb had done about communicating with elders and when they reach that point in life where they need to leave that legacy or whatever, I think it is somewhat cathartic for everybody, and particularly when it relates to history. It almost becomes educational for other people.
Victor: For sure. We read about it, but it doesn’t become tangible. We can’t have the hook that we have when it’s all of a sudden our parent or our grandparent that has had that bird’s eye view or eyewitness view to whatever events that only seem like they were part of a history book.
Steve: Exactly. My film, “Only a Number” is in the New Jersey school system thanks to the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust and Genocide Education. It’s being used in the curriculum. I go in and I still speak to classes and speak to students after they’ve seen the film.
When they’re studying that period in the history, of course, they’re getting…I’m not denigrating it. A lot of these things just have those generalized information about crowds, and the statistics, or whatever.
When you provide a personal story to your point, that’s what really hits home with people. That’s what people identify with because it’s the humanity. It’s the humanity of a person who has had that experience and is relating that to you. I think it really has a huge impact on people.
Victor: While people are doing these interviews with you, do all of the window dressing of the camera and microphone, that kind of stuff, does that just fade over time and so that it’s not a difficult thing for them to share, to break through a wall? You must have to go through that awkward period for people that aren’t used to being filmed or talking, especially that generation.
Steve: Yeah, a little bit. I think a few things help that. One is, especially if it’s local, I try to meet and get to know the people a little bit beforehand. At least have one meeting or phone conversation with them. Personal meeting is always best.
That gives them the opportunity to start to get to know me a little. Also in that process I share my story and my parents’ story. That brings me to the point where they’re relating to me as a human being as opposed to that.
The other thing is, I’d like to think that I have a knack or talent for making people comfortable. I’m a one‑man band, so my equipment is not really very obtrusive or intimidating.
Victor: Nor are there four other people there. Somebody holding a boom mike and someone else…right.
Steve: No other crew, no other thing. I come in with a pretty modest equipment package. My camera isn’t really large or intimidating. That’s set up and then I set it up in a way where I frame the person, but then I’m sitting across from them. I’m sitting next to the camera, not behind the camera, so they’re not speaking directly to the camera, they’re talking to me.
We’re having a conversation. I try to make them as comfortable as possible. I would say, in cases to date, it works and they get comfortable. These interviews can go on for couple of hours.
Victor: I was going to ask, what does the final product look like? Is it a video of a particular length and how much time does it take to put it together? People feel sometimes time pressure to capture a story.
Steve: Right. I don’t feel pressure. I schedule at least a full day of shooting. It depends on the person’s story. The interviews usually run a couple of hours. I do do editing. I try and secure photographs, home videos, home movies, whatever the people have that can support the things that they’re telling me about their story.
Then I edit that all together based on their story. When I’m approaching the editing, to me and to most families, it’s like every word is precious, especially when somebody’s gone. I don’t make too many determinations as to “Well, gee. Maybe I’ll shorten that or maybe I’ll cut that down,” because everything that they say…
Victor: That wasn’t an interesting story. I want you cut that? [laughs]
Steve: Yeah, so I capture everything. I just clean up, eliminate my questions or answers. I certainly give them the opportunity if they hesitate, they want to repeat something, or say it a different way. I try and preserve their story in its entirety because that’s really what’s valuable to the story.
A lot of these are running like two hours. It almost runs the full length of the interview minus my questions and things and then supported by visuals of the photographs and home movies that I can obtain from them.
Victor: If people are interested in exploring this with you, do you have…I certainly want to get all the contact information in what might be called the plug center, so definitely share that. These are all confidential stories and whatever else, but what can they view? What can they view to see something that would be similar to what they would be getting? Is there stuff online for them to look at?
Steve: Absolutely. If they visit my website at arijoe.com ‑‑ that’s A‑R‑I‑J‑O‑E dot com ‑‑ there are examples of the type of stories that I’ve told. Some of them are business stories. Some of them are non‑profit stories. I have a couple that haven’t been posted online yet.
We’re looking into some broadcast opportunities or other opportunities to show it. On the website is, in particular, reference to the elder stories is Bunnie. If they scroll down and view Bunnie, they will see a 23‑minute version, which was actually broadcast on New Jersey Public Television with Bunnie’s permission because she’s a total Jersey girl.
Born and raised in Jersey and still lives on Long Beach Island, and I’m a New Jersey film maker. They put that on there, but the version that was on television is 23 minutes as opposed to the 50‑minute version or hour version that Bunnie’s family got. That’s really the ideal example of somebody’s life story and how precious it is, and everybody loves Bunnie.
Victor: [laughs] I bet they do. Steve, is your contact information for exploring booking this also on arijoe.com or do they have other ways of reaching out to you?
Steve: Yeah. From arijoe.com they can contact me. They can send me an email. I have a few email addresses, but either email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. They can send me an email directly. I never mind giving my phone number out. It’s on my business card. It’s 609‑577‑9206.
Yeah, people have contacted me in various ways. We’ll talk about what it is that they want to achieve. As I said, I offer free consultations. It gives me the opportunity to get to know somebody and get to know what will be involved in capturing their story. They get to know me a little bit. Then we go from there. If they’re interested, I draw up a very simple statement of work and we do it.
Victor: [laughs] Yeah. It’s not a 14‑page contract with releases and everything else.
Steve: No releases. I keep things simple. [laughs]
Victor: I think that’s really crucial to have a service like this because, as we’ve been talking about, once these stories are gone, they’re gone forever. It was very difficult to get them back. Even when you do, you get them, as you’re suggesting, in pieces.
Everyone’s got some element of it, but you can never get the complete picture in the same way that you can get from the principal or from the person that’s telling that story.
Steve: That’s very true. These days, you find a lot of people…Genealogy is really big now and they can go to the website. People are doing their DNA or whatever. To me, while you can, the best way to get your loved one’s story is from them while they can still tell it.
Victor: I love it. Well, thanks for being my guest here today, Steve. I really appreciate it.
Steve: Thank you, Victor. I appreciate you.
Victor: That was my interview with Steve Besserman, chief storyteller of AriJoe Productions. If you’re interested in his services, certainly, you can go look him up at arijoe.com.
As I was saying, I think that this whole idea of capturing somebody’s stories is just such a unique service and so important because once that person is gone, so are their stories. I think that that’s really a valuable thing to explore.
If you’ve liked this show, certainly go on to all of the major sites and rate it ‑‑ Apple iTunes, Android, things like that. Not only did you get an opportunity hear this now, especially if you’re listening to it on the radio, but realize that, as a podcast, we have this available as all of our prior shows. We’re well over 70‑something shows.
There’s probably a topic in the past that you might enjoy listening to. We give you our best recommendation to go look that up and share that with other people. One of the best things that you can do. Other than that, we will be back next Saturday.
We’ve got a whole rash of new guests coming up. I conducted a whole bunch of interviews and I’m happy to share them with you. Do not miss the upcoming shows. We will catch you next Saturday on Make It Last. We’re going to help you keep your legal ducks in a row and your financial nest egg secure.