How Do You Measure a Year?

Since 2017 I’ve made it a point to attend at a theater the screening of the Academy Award-nominated short films, missing only one year since then (COVID). Every year’s presentation (at least at the theater where I happened to see them) has included all five nominees in the Live Action category and all five nominees in the Animated category. Some years have included all five nominees in the Documentary category as well. At least one year included additional films in at least one category that were not nominated (“honorable mention” types, in other words).

In 2023 (that is, the screening was in 2023 and the Academy Award show itself was in 2023; the actual films are from 2022), the presentation included all five nominees in the three categories, with no additional films. So fifteen in all that I’ll be writing about.

I’m starting with the Documentary category, as I watched those films first. The first of those this year was How Do You Measure a Year? by Jay Rosenblatt, a filmmaker of whom I’ve seen quite a few of his short films (not all in these Oscar-nominated collections).

This film hit me really hard emotionally, not just due to the intrinsic qualities of the film itself but due to how it overlapped with my own life. Sitting in the theater I was blown away watching it.

The filmmaker filmed an interview with his daughter Ella every year on her birthday. He asked the same questions (five, as I recall) each year, so as to be able to compare apples to apples in seeing how Ella and her responses changed, as she matured and she was able to understand things and articulate things on a deeper level. This film is a collection of clips from those interviews, in chronological order.

I don’t have any children of my own, but I have developed close relationships with a very small number of children in my life. Two dear friends of mine have a daughter Amanda (three wonderful daughters ultimately) whom I met when she was an infant and whom I quickly came to love more than words can express.

When she was 4 years old, I filmed an interview with her, so there would be a record of what she was like at that age, how her mind worked, what her worldview was like and what striking gaps it contained, etc. I was so pleased with how that went, and it felt so meaningful to me, that it became on ongoing project where I filmed an interview like that with her at each age.

I thought it was an extraordinary and valuable project, and I loved exploring her development in this way, because I have always loved and been fascinated by her. But the project ultimately took on a sort of bittersweet quality for me (maybe 15%-20% bitter and 80%-85% sweet, so still overwhelmingly positive). This isn’t the place to go into the details as to why, but I’ll just indicate in very general terms how things played out.

For part of her childhood I was on the other side of the country, so in order to get the interview in it had to be in the brief window when I came for a visit. For part of her childhood I was local, which in theory should have made it enormously easier to interview her.

But ironically the latter were the hardest years to keep the project going. Her family happens to be extraordinarily busy people with extraordinarily full lives, and while in theory they were in favor of our continuing the interview project, in practice it wasn’t a priority and there was a consistent attitude that there was no urgency to it since we had basically the entire year that she was a given age, so it was always something that could be put off. Maybe I should have been more assertive about it, but I felt like when I did raise the matter I got pushback that this was not a convenient time and I shouldn’t expect them to rearrange their daughter’s schedule for this, and being a conflict-averse person I stepped back. But I felt like I was doing something really valuable here that they would treasure for the rest of their lives, and while they at times expressed agreement with that, when push came to shove all too often I felt like they treated my attempts to secure an interview with her as an imposition on them. It got to the ridiculous extreme that more than one year we just barely got the interview in at all, like a week or so before her next birthday.

One way or another I did manage to secure an interview with her at every age from 4 through 16. But while my tentative plan had always been to continue to age 17 and maybe age 18 to complete her childhood and then play it by ear if we wanted to go beyond that and continue into subsequent years, my efforts to secure an interview anytime for the year she was 17 failed, and I decided to end the project there.

She herself was terrific through the whole process. I’m sure there were some periods of her life that she was more into continuing the interview project than others (we definitely see that in Ella), but as far as I know she never disliked doing the project and wanted it to stop, at least not that she verbalized. We had a wonderful time doing it (other than the stress of knowing an interview could be cut off at any time due to the family having some more important thing they needed her for at that precise moment). It wasn’t her that made it a mixed experience; it was the circumstances of how hard it was to gain access to her.

But like I say, even with all that, I experienced the project as 80%-85% positive. And in the end I burned the thirteen interviews from ages 4 to 16 to DVDs and provided copies to her and her family. These were the interviews in their entirety; insofar as there was any editing at all, it was a few seconds here and there, like if there was an interruption or Amanda had to run off to the bathroom or something. And to one year’s tape I manually added subtitles because the audio was bad enough that I figured people watching it would have trouble making out a lot of what we said.

I really like how the project turned out. Of course I can always look back and wish I had done this or that differently, but for the most part it turned out to be just the kind of chronicle of her mind through her childhood that I’d hoped.

Anyway, that should make it obvious why How Do You Measure a Year? had such a powerful impact on me. I’m no stranger to year-to-year interviewing of a girl I love as she grows up. Watching it was an amazing “Oh my God, that’s me and Amanda!” experience.

Of course while it’s very much the same kind of video project, it differs in numerous respects as well.

With Ella you’re not seeing the whole interviews. This is selected clips, edited together into a short film. So it’s snapshots of her growing up, but not the kind of thorough study of her that you’d get if you watched every year’s interview in its entirety.

Certainly I was self-conscious watching it and comparing the level of technical professionalism. Substantively, if anything I think what I did with Amanda was even better than this, but I’ve admittedly always been mediocre or worse at camerawork, lighting, sound, etc., plus I was using consumer or at best prosumer-level equipment; Rosenblatt is a professional filmmaker and that’s manifest in how the interviews were shot and how this whole project was put together.

It’s not specified how long the interviews were, but I infer that they were considerably shorter than what I did with Amanda. I don’t get the impression that Ella went on at great length in response to the five questions per year, so—and this is very much a guess—I’m thinking each interview was something like five to fifteen minutes long. By way of comparison, the first interview or two that I did with Amanda was about a half hour long, and as she got older our sessions tended to get considerably longer; the last few years they were typically an hour to an hour and a half. Maybe a little over an hour and a half for one or two of them. I encouraged her to expand on her thoughts where she could, and we often conversed back and forth for a while on a given topic. So it wasn’t just a matter of getting a quick answer from her and moving on to the next topic.

One of the most important differences is that while Rosenblatt says he stuck to the same questions very year, I did not. There were one or two I made it a point to ask her every year, including the classic “What do you want to be when you grow up?” career question (which is one of Rosenblatt’s as well), but beyond that I purposely mixed it up. There were questions I asked roughly once every two years or four years or what have you, so we could compare later, and plenty that I only asked her in one interview.

I often tossed in some “knowledge” questions—which Rosenblatt did not—as a way of getting a sense of what schooling and early life experience might and might not give a child of a given age familiarity with. So, for instance, I’d read out to her a list of names (e.g., Elvis Presley, Barack Obama, Moses, Miley Cyrus, Thomas Edison, whatever) and ask her if she had ever heard of the person and if so to describe who they are. (Asked about Elvis Presley, the 5 year old Amanda responded that she didn’t know who that was, because “I think I heard the first part [Elvis], but I didn’t have time to hear the second part [Presley].”) Or I’d ask her if she could identify war, the Supreme Court, Sanskrit, rollerblading, or evaporation. Or I’d ask her some math questions.

It’s interesting in those cases how the younger a person is the more they are often aware of how they came to know something. I mean, if I ask you today to tell me what you know about Abraham Lincoln, and then I ask you how you know that, remembering the source of the information is probably going to be very hazy, because you’ve picked up little bits and pieces directly or indirectly from probably hundreds or thousands of places over the years, just from living in this culture. For a 7 year old, though, it’s a matter of “Oh yeah, he’s in my book of presidents that I got as a present from Grandma last year. He’s the one with a beard. It said he freed the slaves,” because that may well be the only exposure she has had so far to that figure from history.

I especially enjoyed asking questions that encouraged Amanda to get a little deeper and reveal more about who she was at a given age, what her values were, how she thought about things, how her personality was developing, etc. Like, “Do you tend to prefer being alone, having your privacy, being able to think and do your own thing, or do you tend to prefer being with one or more people, doing things together with other people?,” “Is there a God? If so, tell me who God is to you, how you would describe God,” “Is there anything that you fear or that causes you anxiety? Like, if you’re lying in bed awake at night, are there certain negative thoughts that tend to come up, things that you might fear or worry about in your life?,” “How do you think you could be a better person in the future than you are today?,” “Do you think you’re fairly typical of girls your age, or do you feel there are things that set you apart, that maybe make you not fit in as well with them, make you stand out as different or unusual?” “How does being your current age differ from what you perhaps would have predicted five years ago it would be like?,” “Are you old enough yet to identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, etc.? If not, which would you guess you are or will end up?,” and so on.

I was really surprised that one of Rosenblatt’s annual questions was very similar to what I regarded as one of the more obscure questions I asked Amanda in a few of the interviews. I would say to her something like, “Sometimes when people are grown up, they want to better understand who they were as a child, because that can provide a certain amount of insight into how they became the way they are today, maybe how best to deal with their current problems, etc. Certainly in a therapy context, for instance, it’s common to dig back into one’s childhood like that. Or maybe you’re just curious as an adult to better understand the child you were—maybe you’re writing your autobiography, whatever. Without a time machine, you’ll never be able to directly observe or interact with yourself at a different age—normally the best we can do is rely on memory, which is extremely limited and flawed unfortunately—but maybe the closest we can come to doing that is through this interview. I want you to imagine that the 20 year old Amanda, or the 30 year old Amanda, or the 40 year old Amanda, is watching the tape of this interview, and that she (you) is at a point in her life where she really wants to know who she was back when she was 9. If you could talk to her, if you could give her information that you think would be most helpful to her for that purpose, what would you say to her?”

I never felt like this kind of question elicited the best responses from Amanda. I think when she was especially young, it was just hard for me to articulate it in a way that she could understand what I was asking her. (I think sometimes the best she could guess is that I was asking her what advice she might give to a generic adult, or just a generic person, and so she’d say that she’d probably tell them—tell her older self—to hang in there and keep on trying, or to remember to appreciate the good things in life, etc.) But even when she did more or less know what I was getting at, in general I think it’s tough to know just what one should put on record now that an older version of oneself would want to know.

I didn’t persist in asking that kind of question for more than a small number of the interviews, because in the end I decided that really the proper answer to it would probably be, “I’d tell her to watch these tapes.” Because it’s a hard question to address in the abstract, in isolation. I think it’s better to see all these questions in all these interviews as creating just that kind of record of what one’s childhood was like that would be most useful to the adult looking to explore her past and to better understand who she is by better understanding who she was as a child.

But it was really interesting to me watching Ella’s development over the years, just as it always was with Amanda. You see how free and uninhibited and happy she is at her youngest, you sense when she is at an age where there is a certain tension between her and her parents where she references frequent fights with them, you see when she is more reluctant or self-conscious about revealing much about herself, you watch her plans and expectations for her future evolve, you see her admit at a certain age to a fundamental unhappiness or dissatisfaction with life, you see when she is most and least appreciative of her family, the childhood she has had, and this very project.

You cringe in self-recognition when you see the adolescent Ella struggling to create herself as an individual, because you know that that’s a process all of us awkwardly stumble through.

It’s really cool stuff, especially if you’re a parent or you have the kind of quirky connection with the subject matter that I do through my video project with Amanda that makes it natural for you to empathize with a child growing up and with the people who love her. I’d love for this film to encourage more parents to do just this kind of project with their kids. (Not only would it be valuable for families like that, but think about what an incredible resource such interview tapes would be if made available to people studying child development.)

In the end, I don’t know how good a film How Do You Measure a Year? truly is. What I mean is that while I totally got into it, really it’s the project itself, the concept, that captured me, because of my own life experience that I’ve described. So, any film that can be described as “The filmmaker interviewed his daughter every year through her childhood, and this film is a set of clips from those interviews” is pretty much guaranteed to be a winner with me. Unless I suppose they did some crazy, artsy, surreal thing with the footage or whatever. But if you make a film with this concept in a straightforward way, if you respect the content rather than transforming it into something else for some obscure artistic purpose, I’m bound to be fascinated by it and have a deep emotional reaction to it.

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