S1:E27 | Cultivating Belonging & Trust Through Filmmaking

Guest Speaker(s): Arielle Nóbile, Legacy Filmmaker, Legacy Connections Films
Host: Steve Legler, MBA, FEA, CPCC, Family Legacy Coach & Advisor at TSI Heritage


Join host Steve Legler, MBA, FEA, CPCC as he engages in a compelling conversation with Arielle Nóbile, Legacy Filmmaker at Legacy Connections Films. Together, they explore the profound impact of cultivating belonging, trust, and empathy within families, the broader community, and those we work with.

Delve into the captivating world of filmmaking for families, uncovering the valuable role it can play in legacy planning.  The discussion unfolds around the documentary series “Belonging in the USA: Stories from our Neighbors,” shedding light on the power of storytelling to strengthen connections.

About Our Speaker:

After receiving a BFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Arielle Nóbile, studied directing at Second City Theatre Chicago and then taught at Second City and at the Piven Theatre. In 2005, Arielle founded Legacy Connections Films, using filmmaking as a tool to help families reflect intergenerationally upon their collective heritage, identity, and vision. She has created over 100 personal documentaries for clients, shorts and features, tackling themes including family dynamics, addiction, mental health, class, belonging and connection.

She created a 6-part local public television documentary series in 2010 called Belonging in Boulder: Unexpected Stories from Your Neighbors which won a Hugo Television Award. Arielle was named to the 10 Filmmakers to Watch list by “The Independent” magazine. She is the creator of the Belonging in the USA: Stories from our Neighbors documentary trilogy. The first film in the trilogy, Belonging in the USA: The Story of Michael D. McCarty premiered at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles and won several awards including best documentary at the Border scene festival in New Mexico. It is set to air nationally on PBS in late 2023. Arielle’s TEDx Talk The Simple Act of Listening Can be Revolutionary synthesizes what she has learned in nearly two decades of directing documentaries.

STEVE: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the PPI podcast brought to you by the Purposeful Planning Institute. My name is Steve Legler and I’m happy to be your guest host for this episode. Today’s guest is someone I got to know through PPI over the past few years, and I look forward to helping her share some of her work with our community, and Arielle Nóbile is a legacy filmmaker and musician. And so let’s welcome, Arielle, to the PPI podcast.

ARIELLE: Thank you, Steve. Thanks for having me. Pleasure to be here.

STEVE: One of my favorite things since joining PPI was on the calls and whenever we introduced someone, we asked them to share their Purposeful Odyssey which is basically how they got started in this and their meandering path to where they are now. So I know a little bit about yours, but I’m anxious to hear you try and put it into a couple of minutes. 

ARIELLE: So I always say that I started being a legacy filmmaker out of a sense of regret and longing for regret, because I had three great grandmother’s that I got to know, the last of which passed away when I was a freshman in college. I had them as really a part of my life and I had all both my sets of grandparents. And when my last great grandmother was up there and age, I thought about interviewing her and filming her and getting her story. She was a first generation American who had lived in the same building as Al Capone, apparently, who knows this is the family Laura, we have on the west side of Chicago. And long story short, I didn’t interview her and I will always regret that because when she passed away, literally a month after I had the thought of interviewing her with sort of no warning. I felt like, “Wow, that was a wake up call. Time is passing.” However, I still wasn’t wise enough or old enough or whatever to interview my grandfather’s who both passed away when I was about 20 and then, 22. And so I started my business by interviewing my grandmother, the one who is still alive, she’s 93. And that launched me into this Purposeful Odyssey, I guess we could call it, because I have spent the last almost 20 years interviewing hundreds of people from all walks of life about their story and their journey and their Odyssey through life, their hero’s journey. And it’s just been such a privilege to do that I’ve learned so much and really created a lot of meaning, hopefully for others, but definitely for myself in the process.

STEVE: Very interesting. I love it when we meet people, it’s such a personal story that drove them to where they are now. And so you chose a title for this podcast cultivating belonging and trust through filmmaking. So you talked about filming family members but you also did a whole documentary series called Belonging In The USA. Can you sort of give us a little background of how all that fits together in the message you want to share with our community? 

ARIELLE: Yes. So Belonging In The Usa: Stories From Our Neighbors is a trilogy of documentary films I created beginning in 2017. The first of which is the story of Michael de McCarty, which will hopefully be airing and it’s been accepted on PBS (looking for underwriting at the moment). And those stories are films about hero’s journeys and individuals who have been told by the wider society in one way or another that they don’t actually belong and maybe shouldn’t exist, and how they overcame the external pressures and circumstances and hardships to live fulfilling purposeful lives and inspire other people. And the thought behind that was I’ve made maybe at least 150 films and documentaries over these years, but they’re all private. So part of my wanting to do that series was to share the power of this work, because I’ve seen it be so transformative and powerful in families. And I also feel that we’re at a turning point, as a world where we need to just really focus on building more empathy. And I think we can do that through storytelling and through listening and through curiosity and through getting to know people because I really will posit that any single person you would meet and walk past on the street. If you took the time to hear their full story, you would be mesmerized and you’d probably fall in love with them, even if they seem like someone you wouldn’t want to know. 

STEVE: That’s fascinating. You talk about making films in a private way for families, and how you saw how powerful that was, and now want it to sort of extend that. And now, you sort of have one foot in each camp. You know what you can do on the private side and now you’re talking about having something here on PBS. So that must be exciting. 

ARIELLE: It is and it’s a different kind of vulnerability because families necessarily are very vulnerable. And part of the belonging part of all of it is that I’ve always questioned and struggled with my own sense of belonging until I really realized that it’s an inside job, but looking for it outside and looking for sort of an external approval. I think a lot of families struggle with that, too, when being there’s black sheep, and where do I fit in, and all these things. And so the interview process that I’ve taken people through for all these years is very intense and very powerful because I spend with the main storytellers, I spend three to four hours at least four times. So we’re talking about 16 hours of deep listening, I call it revolutionary listening which is something that we just don’t ever get to do. Most things we do for an hour, maybe two of talking — I mean, therapy is what, 15 minutes, and I’m not a therapist — but the process of telling our story is therapeutic. 

ARIELLE: So the reflective process that I take people through in an interview is so healing, because they get to be listened to, in this very profound way and seen in a very profound way. And so what I found is, that experience is transformative, both for the person being heard and seen. And myself, actually, I get a lot from that and it drives a lot of my choices in life, and has opened me to so many things, selfishly, I love what I do for that reason. But the other side of it is I wanted to share these other stories more widely with people. And what it took was those people being vulnerable enough to say, “Okay, I’m going to share how I came to have a sense of belonging and how I cultivate belonging.” Now, you might watch these three films and not It’s not like they’re on point, that there’s talking about belonging all the time. In the title, there is to create that question in the viewer’s mind: What does this have to do with belonging? And so that’s my purpose with those films in a way is to strike that curiosity. And also the stories from our neighbors apart, I believe that we’re all neighbors in the world. And we have to start to look at each other that way and treat each other as neighbors. It’s that idea of human, brotherly and sisterly love.

STEVE: They talk about the fact that once you get to know someone, it’s hard for them to be your enemy. And your whole idea about spending time with people and allowing them, it’s almost a therapeutic process for them to share. And I’m just wondering, when you do that with family leaders to capture their story and the fact that it’s private, does that sort of sometimes make it easier for them that it’s only going to be seen by family? And then you hear the stories about elders who don’t think that anyone wants to hear their story, and then they’re always surprised that when their children and grandchildren hear things that they didn’t know, that this is sort of revelatory, and starts to frame the fact family narrative and very useful whips.

ARIELLE: Yes, there’s a bunch of questions in there. But I’ll say that there’s something just inherently healing and very vulnerable. And I just listened to an Oprah book that was called What Happened To You, which I really highly recommend. And she said at the end of every interview she’s ever done, and this is true for me, I would say two people will look at me and kind of be like, “How did I do? Did I do okay?” It doesn’t matter how successful they are that we all have that sort of wanting to, we’re all children inside. But part of what’s unique about the way I do these films for families is that I decided a few years ago that we will only work with families where there are three generations who are going to get their voices heard in the story. So it’s not just about the elderly, this is what happened and this is my story that I’m pontificating about, it’s a reflective process for the whole family. And it really gives a mirroring quality and there’s some feedback from the younger generations, “This is what I think our story is. This is what I feel in this family.” And a lot of it is about the culture of the family and the vibe. And so there’s incredible vulnerability there. But I also always set up every interview — this is true for the public documentaries, too. By saying, i”If you say anything to me that you don’t want anyone else to ever hear, no one will ever hear it,” my editor and I will cut it out. It is not about exposing you or ripping you apart, this is about your own process of self-discovery. I love watching people have revelations and have aha moments and have and come to see their own life with a new frame. Because that’s to me what it’s really about, it’s not just about ‘this is the family story.’ I come from a theater and an improv background. I used to teach at Second City in Chicago. And that part of me thatI don’t let people don’t have to prepare to be interviewed by me. I don’t really want to know too much either. I might want to know the basic outline, “Okay, this one conversation.” And then I don’t even want to talk to the people too much. I want to sit down and have a fresh curiosity to say, “Who are you? Tell me who you are.” Because I’m really trying to get at the spirit and the soul of the person, not just the facts, or the data, or the story, or even their achievements. I think what’s so much more fascinating about life is what didn’t go well. And how we get through it. 

STEVE: And those are the parts of the story that people don’t typically want to share because it doesn’t make them necessarily look good? But if you make them comfortable by listening to them and allowing them, those where things went wrong or the mistakes made are often where the juiciest nuggets are.

ARIELLE: But to your question, your point was also that this is private. So there’s no fear of some canceled culture or backlash, or you could say anything to me and people believe me have said everything to me. And so I am not there. I’m an unbiased observer. I would say that having done this for my family, and now doing it for so many other families, and having that honor and privilege to be invited and trusted. It’s so much easier to have an outsider do it. It’s better to do it but wow, was it hard. I look at the films I made for my family and there’s so many places I couldn’t go, I just couldn’t. There were judgments, there’s stories, there’s history that I honestly didn’t want to be in it. So I’m not in either of my films, which I wouldn’t allow that to happen. If I could help it with a family I was working with, it really needs to be sort of everyone’s participating to make it work in the best way. 

STEVE:  But you’re bringing up a point that most PPI members work with families, and we are an outsider to these families. And if ever, we have to do some similar role within our own families, we quickly see how it is very limited. So just the idea of having the outsider coming in to be able to do this properly just underscores so much about our whole field. 

ARIELLE: Yes, but I would say I also really appreciate and value the fact that I tempt it, I did it with my own family because it gave me the perspective and the vulnerability of what I’m asking people to do. And I’m asking people to be extremely candid and vulnerable with people who we typically, we in families, we all have these roles that we’ve constructed, and we have these very solidified that’s this person who’s always slacking off, and that’s the person who’s controlling and all those things. But you come into a fresh conversation with someone who’s never met you and you don’t have any of those limitations, you can just be your real self. And then in the film, what’s different about what I do versus maybe some other advisors — I’m not an advisor, I don’t think of myself because I’m not there to give advice. I’m there to be a vessel of a big year — the discovery process that happens is really powerful because they also know that through me, they’re communicating to their family members, things that they maybe could never say, or never would dare to say or they’re also really putting the trust in me that I’m not going to and I make this very clear up front. I’m not going to put anything in the films that’s going to hurt anyone. I’m not going to be a vessel of triangulation, none of that. But I’ve done enough of my own therapy. I have a great therapist, to know what is for therapy and what is that for public exposure. I would say this: not every person in the world is ready to be seen, heard, or deeply reflect. So what another thing about these films is that it gives people who don’t want to do those things. They just think of it as, “I’m just telling you my story in the facts.” There’s always one person in a family situation, in any of the films I’ve made, works for them. It’s their healing. And I think sometimes there’s probably people in the future that haven’t even been born yet, who will be that person, who this was really made for maybe in 100 years, they’re like, “What happened? Oh, I have this film. I can watch and it totally nails it for me. I totally get how I came to be this way, how all this stuff happened over these generations.” It gives me chills to think about that. It’s so exciting.

STEVE: That is really cool because you’re making it for a limited audience for a family, yet that family over the coming decades and generations will grow. And so there are potential beneficiaries of watching your work that aren’t yet born. And somehow all these stories from generations before, they’re all in us, somewhere.

ARIELLE: Epigenetics.

STEVE: And we don’t know and then somebody someday is going to watch something (and probably already has) that had some aha moments from some of these. 

ARIELLE: Yeah, and it’s never too late either. I have one client who is a dear friend now, but she’s in her 80s now, but she was in her early 70s when we worked together, and her mother was still alive, who was in her 90s. And she came to me to tell her husband’s families that they have the business and the money and all the stuff. She’s coming to me for all and I was like, “Wait, I’d like to get the full picture. Is your mom alive?” “She’s 90.” “What, you have four daughters? You don’t think the matriarchal line is maybe slightly important to tell?” So I did her side as well and she had a tricky relationship with this mother, who was a tricky person from Oklahoma, Texas, and a tough lady, and was pretty much blind even when I interviewed her. Anyway, when my client watched her mother’s film, she just wrote to me after and just we wept through the whole thing. And so it brought up so much for her to see her mother in this as a human, not as her mother, not as the right person who had tricky things happen over her lifetime, as another, as a fellow human. And her mother’s since passed away, I know she occasionally watches it. So we made a lot of films, we made more than one film for every family. But I feel like that for that family, that film was particularly healing for that person. And to me, that’s enough part of making my business and being a legacy filmmaker versus most filmmakers are all about, “Let’s win an Oscar. Hey, that would be great.” But I kind of was killing my ego on some level by choosing to make private films. I don’t know if I’ve done it, I don’t think we can kill our egos but attempted to.

STEVE: You talk about the fact that you’re not an advisor, you’re not a therapist, but through your work, you are playing some version of that role in many ways. And you just made me flashback to when I was doing some of my own work for Bowen family systems theory, where I went and interviewed my aunt to clarify some things about my relationship with my dad, and I fully get that, “Oh, my God, I got to hear about him as a human, as opposed to my dad.” And so the work you do is so interesting and deep. And you talk about the fact that listening is the key. And so if we want for the  listeners to get something out of it: what is the key to people sharing things with you? You said, “Believe me, people have told me all kinds of things.” And in my work too, I don’t know what it is about the way I ask questions, but people share stuff with me the first time I talked to him that I would never share with people. So what are your tricks for listening to people in ways that have them wanting to share? 

ARIELLE: That’s a good question. And I also want to say, just as something else you just said, as far as another potential I see for my work that I don’t know, if it’s been fully realized is fellow advisors (if you want to call me an advisor), using the films as tools within the family for years to come to (which I don’t know if that’s happened as much as I would like it to), but I see the potential for that as sort of, “Let’s watch these annually and let’s talk about what’s still true, what’s not true, what what came out of this, how did this help you grow and not just leaving it?” There’s this piece of art made. 

STEVE: Well, there’s some content there, and you can let it sit on the shelf or you can bring it out and share it together as a group and learn from that group experience. 

ARIELLE: Totally. But I don’t think I have tricks. I think it’s just partially who I am. I am very open minded, very intuitive. I would say I have this innate ability to see, this is gonna sound so strange, but just like the baby in people, I look at you and I’m like, “Oh my gosh. You were just the most adorable baby.” I can see it. And I can see your light. For some of us, it goes out, it gets dimmer, but it’s always there. There’s that spark of the original self that we are. And so sometimes my job is to help make that brighter when it’s been dimmed a lot, or people are really cerebral, or people are really shut down or been or traumatized or whatever it is. And sometimes it’s just like, “Wow, they’re on fire. I’m on fire.” It’s just because they’ve been waiting their whole life to be heard like this. I’ll talk about Michael D for a second, who’s gonna be on PBS. My favorite part about that film, honestly, is that he has watched it. It toured festivals. It’s won awards. We’ve been all over the country. Hopefully soon all over the world. We did a screening in Finland virtually and he loves that film. He feels seen when he watches that film. It feels like it represents his true essence. And that to me, is the highest compliment because he is a person, if you’ve met him, he’s larger than life. He’s a professional storyteller. He’s incredible and he has this laugh that just goes on for days. But there’s a lot of him in a more nuance to who he is than that loud personality that he shows up in a room.

STEVE: You are able to bring that out of him. And one of the words I thought you were gonna say and you didn’t. So that’s great. It’s curiosity because you are there because you are curious, and you don’t have any other agenda but to listen to them and help them share their story. 

ARIELLE: I think I want to take it further than curiosity. I think it’s about wonder. I wonder a lot about people. I’m curious about them. Sure. But curiosity feels invasive somehow. It feels like an interrogation that I’m curious about. You tell me it feels very cerebral and feels more heart-centered. And it feels more like I wonder sometimes especially in my intake process, which is very short, as short as possible. I want to know as little as possible. I tried to find out what happened here. So there’s one family I worked with that had a huge tragedy, their daughter had died. She got hit rear ended by a semi in a tollbooth on her way to move back to where her family lived. And she’d invited her mom to help her move.

STEVE: Oh, my God.

ARIELLE: And her mom was too busy and didn’t do it. This is a billionaire family. And then her daughter is dead. So I go into this and I’m getting chills telling the story. I go into this knowing that this is in the background of everything. And knowing that since then, this couple who are in their 80s, at the time I interviewed them had a lot of tunnel because it’s really hard to stay together when you have something like that, no matter how much money you have. And so, there was only so much I could do honestly with that family. But in the end, her husband passed away a couple years after. And she was a very hard person. She had so many walls up and even then they called me and reached out to see if I could make something little for his memorial, something condensed. And she was sort of blocking paying me for it. And it was this whole funny thing. And I finally talked to him on the phone. And she ended up crying and saying how much he appreciated how she didn’t really get what I had done until he died. And then she was all appreciative but it was like, “Ahh.” Just that much. So I think part of it is also we’re holders of space. I can hold a lot. I can hold it without taking it in. I can help contain it. And I can also know when to push and when not to push.  My second film for the belonging series, this is a couple who are both survivors of the Argentine genocide, survivors of torture, survivors of imprisonment and then exile. I don’t believe in trauma porn, which is a big thing in our world now. So I didn’t want to open those wounds. I wanted to get enough in there without damaging them more if you’re walking a very delicate line. But I’ll tell you this because I didn’t talk about this in the first interviews. I really did for a film where in the town I’m living in now in Argentina, I interviewed the mothers of the disappeared here, these old women who had been fighting to find out what happened to their children for, at that point, it was 25 years — this is so cool. I’m gonna tell you the story — so I never did anything with those interviews. I gave them to the families but they were the hardest interviews I ever did. They’re in Spanish. They’re about this thing that unimaginable horror happened to them. Just last week, a granddaughter who’s 23 was one of those women contacted me. She is studying film and she wants to make something about her grandmother and she was at sea when we met. I’m gonna give her the footage of the interviews I did for the grandmother. She’s going to turn it into something beautiful. And that makes me so happy that you just never know. 

STEVE: You never know. Arielle, I think we’re getting to the end of our time here. So I need to thank you. It’s been wonderful (and that’s to use your word ‘wonder’) getting to know more about your work, and you’re sharing your thoughts with the PPI community. Thank you so much.

ARIELLE: You’re still welcome. Thank you,

STEVE: Listeners, thanks for joining us. I’m Steve Legler. Until next time.

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