Daniela Mendelsohn’s 101-year-old grandmother, Anne, says that Estée Lauder is her best friend.
Mind you, she never met the late cosmetics queen, but she refreshes her Estée Lauder lipstick after every cup of coffee and pampers her face with Re-Nutriv cream every day.
Keren Greenberg’s grandparents, Blu and Yitz, recall that on their first date — it was in a horse-drawn buggy that took them through Central Park in 1955 — the driver kept offering to take them to lovers’ lane. He did not realize that the young couple — who later became icons of American modern Orthodoxy — had no intention of making out.
Such are the precious snippets of individuality immortalized on film by Ms. Mendelsohn and Ms. Greenberg through their joint business venture, docyourstory, which began as the result of a casual conversation in June 2015.
“We were chatting about our grandparents and the amazing lives they have lived,” Ms. Mendelsohn, 39, who has lived in Englewood all her life, said. “We were recalling some of their favorite stories to tell and the history behind them.
“And so we thought, why not start to document these stories on film, told in their own words, capturing the mannerisms and trademarks that make them so unique to us? What started with our own grandparents has now turned into a thriving business, where private families hire us to document the story of a loved one. Our passion and talent lie in capturing our featured stars in their element, highlighting their personality and bringing their stories to life.”
Ms. Greenberg, 26, has a degree in photography and video from the School of Visual Arts. Ms. Mendelsohn recently stepped down as founding director of ArtWorks: The Naomi Cohain Foundation, established in 2002 to provide access to creative and performing arts programs for children and young adults battling chronic and life-limiting illnesses, and their siblings.
One of the 11 docyourstory films commissioned so far is a 17-minute documentary about Dr. Michael Harris of Englewood, co-director of the Children’s Cancer Institute at Hackensack University Medical Center. Dr. Harris cared for Ms. Mendelsohn’s cousin Naomi Cohain, who died of bone cancer when she was 15 and became the inspiration for ArtWorks.
The documentary was a gift from the family of another patient, who now is a healthy teenager. “I saw her parents at an ArtWorks event and told them about our film production company,” Ms. Mendelsohn said. “They said they wanted to do something for Dr. Harris as a thank-you, and loved the idea of gifting him a film to use as he wanted to.”
Dr. Harris agreed, on the condition that the documentary would focus on his humanistic philosophy and approach to medicine. That way, he could use it as an educational tool. The medical center will premiere the film on November 1 and then screen it at an upcoming management meeting for hundreds of employees.
Though docyourstory isn’t meant to be a Jewish business, nearly all the commissions so far have been from Jewish families. And some of the films have an intensely personal aspect for Ms. Mendelsohn and Ms. Greenberg.
In addition to documenting their grandparents, the two women traveled to Jerusalem to film Ms. Mendelsohn’s sister, Liora Mendelsohn-Tannenbaum, discussing her decision to have a prophylactic double mastectomy. Ms. Mendelsohn-Tannenbaum came to that decision because she is a carrier of the BRCA gene that greatly increases the chance of breast and ovarian cancer.
The 15-minute film, “From Fear to Freedom,” was released online in February and posted last month on the website of Sharsheret, the Teaneck-based national nonprofit organization supporting young Jewish women facing breast and ovarian cancer. It’s at www.sharsheret.org/blog/9795/fear-freedom-sharing-my-journey-brca-carrier.
“Liora wrote a summary of her experience and Sharsheret linked it to the film and shared it through their social-media channels, and the response has been overwhelming,” Ms. Mendelsohn said.
“A breast surgeon told my parents, ‘You don’t know how many lives have been changed by this film,’ and a hospital in Israel is showing it and recommending it to BRCA gene carriers. Liora has received calls and emails from women all over the world seeking guidance, comfort and support. When you put a face to a cause it changes the conversation.
“People can relate on a personal and emotional level.”
Docyourstory’s founders did not invent the concept of professional personal documentaries, of course. But they do try to change up the style.
“We were familiar with the format of legacy videos,” Ms. Greenberg said. “My family commissioned them for two of my grandparents some years ago. Last summer I came across the DVD in my father’s house.
“When I watched it, I saw my grandmother sitting in a chair and telling her story in facts and dates, but her character wasn’t coming through. I wanted to document people in their world, doing their favorite activities — short documentaries with a realistic budget that really capture people’s essence, their humor and personality. The first six months of docyourstory was spent figuring out if we could do that.”
Ms. Mendelsohn added that their approach is geared to millennials who find long legacy videos boring.
“We strive to create a film that is creative, dynamic, and leaves you remembering what you watched,” she said. “Before filming, we sit with the family and ask them what makes this person unique, and we receive answers like ‘He’s an amazing dancer’ or ‘She collects miniature clocks.’ And then we make sure to capture those moments on camera.”
Depending on factors such as the number of production days and locations, the films cost in the range of $5,000 to $20,000. “We go wherever the stories take us,” Ms. Mendelsohn said.
The co-founders, who bootstrapped the company from their savings, sometimes have to be resourceful in finding visuals.
“We’re doing a film on a woman who came to New York from Shanghai after the war and didn’t have a lot of photos of her youth, so we reached out to the U.S. Holocaust Museum for archival material,” Ms. Mendelsohn said.
“I recently received a call from a woman who is interested in having docyourstory create a memoir of her father,” she continued. “His was the last Jewish family to leave Afghanistan. He was sent away to boarding school in Israel at age 8, was one of 10 children, and has become an incredibly successful businessman. He has helped build shuls, community centers, gifted sefer Torahs and siddurim to shuls, schools, and the Israeli army, and supports families in need. Truth is, his story is beyond description, and would merit a feature film.”
Everyone has a story, Ms. Mendelsohn and Ms. Greenberg said. No matter whether it is a 40-year-old community activist, an 85-year-old grandparent, or a young entrepreneur, there’s a story.
“Telling a story for the next generation is a very strong value in the Jewish community,” said Ms. Greenberg, who was born and raised in Israel and now lives in Manhattan. “It really speaks to us.”
For more information, see www.docyourstory.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.