Capturing a Lasting Legacy: The While I’m Here Project
Originally published on PassionPassport.com
“A hero is someone who does something extraordinary. I’m just doing ordinary things.”
“The most important thing, I believe, is what I’m doing now — trying to go and make something out of myself before I leave this world.”
“The legacy of myself is that I would be remembered in a positive way. That I did something good.”
These are the words spoken in the thematic intro for the videos in Canadian director Brent Foster’s passion project, While I’m Here: The Legacy Project.
Though Brent originally thought it the project, a series of profile videos, would just be centered in North America, it’s now gone worldwide. And one of the most recent videos, about a 100-year-old Kalinga tattoo artist in the Philippines, was reposted by National Geographic and was viewed more than two million times.
“It’s been the most important thing I’ve done as a filmmaker,” Brent said.
Where did the idea for this project come from?
I grew up in a small town in Ontario, Canada, and there was a man who lived in the town here who used to sharpen everyone’s hockey skates — a super typical Canadian thing. He had this small garage and everyone in our tiny community knew that you brought your skates to Frank and he would sharpen them and then you’d go off and play hockey and he’d never take a dime.
As a filmmaker, I always promised myself that I’d go back and tell his story one day. My goal was to create a powerful short story that I could get on to a news network or hockey network to really honor his legacy and his story.
Time passed, as it does, and I was working abroad as a photojournalist. I ended up coming back home and I talked to him about telling his story, but he was diagnosed with cancer and passed away before I could. Out of regret, really, I started the Legacy Project with the idea that people’s stories are fleeting and if you don’t stop and take the time to tell them, they can be gone in no time. I started the project to tell everyday hero type of stories — about everyday people doing really amazing things everyday, and telling their stories while they’re still here and while they’re still in the act of doing those things.
What was it like to get the project up and running?
Passion projects are really easy to come up with, but they’re a lot harder to execute. When the idea came up, I started chatting with colleagues and told them it was something I really wanted to make happen. And I asked if it interested them.
Pre-production started really quickly. I had a few ideas of types of stories I wanted to tell, but as a small team of volunteers, everyone got together and started making this happen right away.
How did you identify the first person you were going to profile?
The first one was the easiest, to be honest. It was the San Diego Highwayman, Thomas Weller. He’s this guy who rescues people on the side of the highway and he won’t take a dime, just gives them this card and says, “please pass this on one day.” I had actually met Thomas when I worked at the LA Times and did a short story about a ridealong with him, and he’d always stuck out in my mind as this incredible guy who deserved to be in a project like this.
So I contacted him right away. And he was absolutely game for it. That one was the simplest out of all of them.
When you were doing that first video, how was the project forming itself in your head? And how did the first video shape the rest?
The first one was one of my first films as a director and a fairly new filmmaker. It’s been really amazing because when we started the project, we were really learning the art of storytelling and learning how to craft films. We’ve all evolved and grown in different ways, but each project has become stronger and stronger as we’ve become better at our craft. We’ve learned along the way with each one.
What was your approach to the filmmaking and deciding how these videos were going to look?
I really wanted to make it this blend of documentary-style interviews and real-life moments that are beautifully cinematic. I look at the pieces as this mix of documentary and cinematic flare. It’s not a typical verite documentary where everything is unfolding in front of of you — we’re selecting scenes, picking the places we want to film, picking the right time of day to film the locations. We’re using things like stabilizers, gymbals, drones, and lighting and trying to add polish to the pieces that will make them stand out from the typical run-and-gun documentaries.
When I watched the videos, they seemed to each have a distinct feel. How do you tackle the storytelling in post-production?
When we first started, we gathered everything we could and made a lot of the decisions in post. We were learning and weren’t doing a lot of pre-production since we were figuring everything out on the fly.
But for the last couple of projects, a lot of pre-production went into those projects. We were working with producers or fixers on the ground who were actually meeting the subjects we were going to film in advance. They were taking location photos for us, helping us get to know our subjects, and helping them get comfortable before we started to film. And we allowed time on the ground to get to know the subjects we were filming and pick locations and craft the story in a way we hadn’t before.
The stories shifted — when we began, it was us figuring it out on the fly; and the last projects we’ve planned in advance how we’re going to tell the story and are making conscious decisions about what we’re shooting and why and how that applies to the final edit. So the post work has been a bit easier on the last couple of stories because we’ve spent so much more time in the pre-production phases of the projects.
How are you finding the people that you’re going to profile?
It’s really been a mix of different ways. For the second project, I came across a YouTube video of the bluesman, Leo “Bud” Welch, playing at someone’s birthday party. It was one of those shaky handheld videos, but I saw Leo playing and his face and his character … I just thought it was an amazing story.
I came across an article about Ed Nicholson from Project Healing Waters and reached out to him that way. But most of it has been spending a lot of time researching on the web. The last couple of projects have actually come through other translators and fixers on the ground in the Philippines and Uganda — they’ve reached out to us and nominated people as potential candidates.
Can you tell me about a few of the other subjects?
It’s been really special because with each character we’ve profiled, we learn a whole wealth of life lessons from them. They’re all so different.
Leo — the Mississippi Bluesman — he teaches you that it’s never too late. Ed — the fly-fisherman from Project Healing Waters — he’s a much more quiet and subtle person, and he’s just patient and kind with people.
Whang-Od — the 100-year-old Kalinga tattoo artist behaved the youngest out of everyone we’ve met. It’s almost like the older the people we’re profiling, the more energy and enthusiasm they have for what they’re doing. That was a time in which we were able to tell the story of a tradition being passed on actively. We had the chance to spend time with Whang-Od, but also spend time with her grand-niece, Grace, who she was passing this tradition on to and see the contrast between generations of people choosing to stay in a village because they want to.
For the most recent project, we were in rural Africa with a woman named Nalongo. After she retired as a midwife, she took her home and turned half of it into a clinic. She’s delivering babies for women in her rural area, and on a mission to educate and empower the women in her area so they have access to family planning and a better understanding of how to raise a family and consider the things that come with that to keep their families safe and healthy and happy. Seeing life brought into the world is incredibly special, and seeing how one person can have such a ripple effect on their community is just amazing.
When I was watching some of the videos, it struck me that there seemed to be a conscious decision to include other people in the storytelling. Was it a conscious decision? And how did it affect the storytelling?
Each person we’ve profiled, we’ve definitely made a conscious decision about how we’re going to tell that story. As much as I had it in my mind to only profile one person per story, with Ed, once we met everyone there we realized that his story was so much more powerful when you heard other people around him and the way their lives were impacted. It’s a bit of feeling it out when you’re there and seeing what makes the most sense. At the time, we weren’t 100% sure we were going to include the other characters, but we still gathered the interviews so we had them as an option in post.
With Whang-Od, it really made sense to me to include her grand-niece. We could have just included Whang-Od and I think it still would’ve been a really strong story. But the passing of the torch to the next generation really is her legacy. It was important to include that in her case.
In the last story, with Nalongo, her granddaughter played a role in the story, but Nalongo’s story is about how she is empowering the women in her community. That’s the part of her story that we wanted to focus on.
How did the giving back aspect come into the project?
To be honest, it wasn’t something we intended to do. When we told Thomas’ story, the story of losing his prized car became a really natural part of his legacy. The night before we launched it, I decided to put up a GoFundMe and see if we could get enough donations to raise some gas money for him.
In my past work as a photojournalist, I was always taking photos in these really hard situations and constantly wondering if it was making a difference. But here was a chance for us to put something out there and see if it makes a difference.
The first morning, there was a couple thousand dollars in the GoFundMe account for Thomas. Throughout the next couple of days, donations poured in to help him. But what was even more incredible was the fact that hundreds of people came out of the woodwork who Thomas had helped over the course of the last 50 years. We were getting these incredible messages as the story was being picked up on various media sources — people writing in and saying, “28 years ago I was a single mom and I was stuck on the side of the road with my two kids. You came along and helped me and now I chance to give you something back.”
We decided then and there that with each project we would try to do something to help the subject continue to pursue whatever their legacy is. We’ve successfully done that in various ways. Especially with the most recent project — helping to build Nalongo’s clinic would be a dream come true.
How has this project impacted you personally?
On a personal level, just being able to spend time with people who are so incredibly selfless can’t not change you. Especially after working as a photojournalist and often covering very negative stories, being able to focus on the positive has been really refreshing.
Having a project like this to spread out over the course of a few years has also really allowed me to grow as a director. It’s also allowed our small team to become amazing friends. The experiences you get to have behind the scenes on trips like this are incredible — in a sense, you’re living your own legacy while you’re creating these.
What does the word “legacy” mean to you now?
Legacy for me has taken on a new description. It’s not the way people are considering what they’re going to leave behind, it’s what they’re actually doing right now. That’s what’s so incredibly inspiring.
What are you hoping that people are left with when they’re done watching these videos?
I hope they recognize how quickly life passes you by and that you should cherish the moments you have with the people around you. I also hope they reflect on their own family members and friends and colleagues — and if they’re filmmakers or photographers or have access to just record audio, it’s worthwhile to sit down with your own friends and families and start to record their legacies.
What is the future of this project going to look like?
The goal was to do six stories. We’ve finished five. I have a goal of wrapping the project up in Northern Canada and telling the story of the passing on of traditional indigenous language. But if another project came along in the meantime, we’d definitely entertain that. The goal is six, but that doesn’t mean we have to close the doors on the project. I think it’s something that can continue on if the right person comes along.