The first movie I made was called The Story of Charlie. I would have been about 9 at the time. It was a 30-minute-long scifi/fantasy film - shot in several long takes with my parents' clunky video camera - about the mythical origins of our Cairn Terrier, Charlie. I both directed and starred in the film as Mary Poppins' daughter, Sarah (most likely because my improvising costars - my younger sister and our next door neighbour - couldn't remember a different name than my own once we were rolling). Sarah Poppins had to save Charlie from an evil witch - played by my younger sister - in an alternate universe called Ina Nina Land. Fluttering around our backyard in a long, safety-pinned floral skirt, a straw hat and a cringe-worthy British-ish accent, I was beginning a strange and wonderful hobby. This hobby would fulfill me creatively and help me find my place in the spotlight during the most developmentally awkward years of my life.
In the years that followed, myself and anyone I could gather - friends, family, babysitters, pets - would produce, direct and star in an impressive oeuvre of films that ranged a variety of different themes and genres. Some were topical short snippets: me and a friend giving ill-advised boy tips at age 10 while swinging on our backyard swing in purple, sparkly feather-shedding boas. Some were empowering: a low budget remake of Charlie's Angels featuring several far too long chase scenes. Some were quite dark and perhaps a little too real: a horror movie called Killing You where I play a creepy dude who is rejected by two girls at a bar, and then proceeds to hunt them down with a butter knife, repeatedly offering to buy them a drink. And some were heartwarming and sort of educational: a documentary where I interview a few of my neighbours on their relationships with their dogs.
Too physically uncoordinated to play any recreational sports, and not yet enrolled in any theatre programs, these films became my go-to way to pass the time. When our family moved to a tiny town with even less obvious means of entertainment around, I took filmmaking with me, and it became an easy way to connect to my new friends who were similarly looking for inventive means of amusement. The connecting to people piece was a big deal for me. Filmmaking saved me from boredom, sure, but more importantly I think it saved me from loneliness. I've always been pretty outgoing, but prone to sporadic bouts of unshakable awkwardness and what I've recently recognized as anxiety. Through filmmaking I could connect with people over a shared project and that somehow made me feel way more at ease. But the other interesting thing about filmmaking is that it could make me feel less alone, even on the occasions when there wasn't anyone around to join me in the spotlight. In the presence of my invisible audience, I was never totally companionless.
I eventually grew out of the filmmaking thing - around the same time we all grew out of VHS tapes - but I don't doubt that I brought the knack for storytelling and the desire to connect to a variety of different mediums in the years to come.
Fast-forward to earlier this year, when I'm 24 and have just downloaded Snapchat, after a friend admitted she was obsessed with Kate Hudson's very intimate and hilarious Snap stories. I was intrigued. It took some time for me to get used to Snapchat's not-so-intuitive intuitiveness, but when I started recording short clips of myself, my friends and my coworkers - after I had their consent, of course - it all felt oddly familiar. I finally got my video camera back and was ready to dust off my director's cap.
Cue a montage of ten second clips of late night/early morning Chinese food, sped up videos of my sister making a peach pie, uncalled for closeups of my mouth chewing, and squeal-inducing encounters with an adorable Beagle-Chihuahua puppy mix I met on the dock at the cottage.
There have been conversations for years now about the pervasiveness of self-documenting online and its inherent connection to vanity, ego and disconnection from reality. When Instagram launched its own version of Snapchat stories a few weeks ago, numerous tech sites voiced a frenzy of concerns about how this type of platform represented an accelerated shift towards people perpetually recording every moment of their own lives, sacrificing actually experiencing life in the process.
It's not a new argument. It's not a bad argument either. Worries about social media's ability to create distance between people are not unmerited. I'm going to assume we're all familiar with the common adage that life happens offline. It's not totally wrong, but let's just put that aside for a second.
The conversations I'm interested in are the ways in which platforms like the Snapchat story give space for a new kind of connection; a connection that's a little rawer, a little sillier and a little more #nofilter than other platforms and potentially some real life interactions too. Maybe these connections could enhance relationships by exposing ourselves in ways otherwise not possible offline. I'll admit when I first started snapping I did feel guilty and totally vain, but then I remembered Sarah Poppins: a bored 9-year-old playing dress up with the desire to tell stories, express herself and feel a little less alone. That 9-year-old lives on in me, hungry for creative ways to pass the time, to feel connected, and to take the stage in her own life.
I know when to turn the camera off too. Some moments are too sacred and also too difficult to be pulled from in the name of recording them. I trust my judgement in determining what is appropriate to capture and what is best left undocumented. I also know myself enough to notice when I'm getting carried away.
For some of us, digital storytelling is a way to show ourselves to the world around us as we want to be, but don't always get to be, seen. Our stories help us squeeze meaning out of the seemingly mundane and give us tangible proof that our lives are important solely because they are our lives.
If Snapchat or other social platforms are the storytelling tools that allow us to share the parts of ourselves that deserve more of a spotlight, then I don't see anything wrong with that. If our stories can help us share those parts of ourselves with others more authentically, and potentially give them the space to share in return, then I don't see anything wrong with that either. Roll credits.
Follow Sarah van den Berg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/frequentredhead