One of the more interesting projects I’ve had the opportunity to produce over the last few months was “18 Miles,” a documentary/oral history project commissioned by a family that wished to preserve the story of their elderly patriarch for future generations. His daughter, Donna Weldon, turned to my colleague, Alexandra Nichols, and together we developed a concept which I hope we can replicate for other families.
"18 Miles" is the story of soldier Joseph Lincoln and his hometown sweetheart, Ruth Williams. Married for 54 years, this is the story of how they found in their lives together a union of hearts and minds.
Through interviews with Mr. Lincoln (Ruth had passed away a year before), their children and friends, along with selected historical re-enactments, we tell the dramatic story of how Joe and Ruth met and then married in the early 1950’s. As Ruth was preparing for the wedding, Joe was at an army base, in training to earn his wings (and increased pay) as a paratrooper. His final jump was repeatedly delayed due to weather, as the wedding date drew ever closer. He achieved his final jump just in time, but he still had to make it home. A regional air force base offered a ride home – but his journey to that base would require a hike through backwoods in the deep south. As an African-American man in the 1950’s, he knew the very real dangers he might face.
This wasn’t a project created for television, cable or even online – it was created for the specific purpose of keeping family history alive. As Alexandra explains, her own heritage as an African American "requires me to honor the patriarchs and matriarchs in our communities by listening and learning from their wisdom." Too often, family histories are lost after a generation or two. Even Oral histories—extended interviews with individual family members about their lives—don’t necessarily provide a sense of the true spirit of an individual’s life in a form that future generations can easily access and appreciate.
“18 Miles,” like any good documentary, told a story. With the help of Joe and his family, we focused on selected events in the lives of Joe and Ruth that paid tribute to their lives and their marriage, and preserved in a very real sense the spirit of who they were as a couple and a family.
“18 Miles” wasn’t just a successful project, it also brought the family together. Actors in the stylistic re-enactments included his children and grandchildren. Donna offered a rich selection of family photographs and documents that helped bring the tale to life. With the help of cinematographer Peter Bonilla, we were able to create a program created for a family that had the look and feel of a broadcast production.
Alexandra and I believe that “18 Miles” provides an exciting model for families to pay tribute to and immortalize their own history. Future generations won’t simply know their family history—they’ll feel it.