Filmmaker Rick Stevenson captures the power of personal story telling

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We write our personal story through our choices and actions. Whether we compose a comedy or a tragedy, it is not until we share our story that we achieve full self-awareness and ultimately empowerment over our circumstances.

This is the premise of Rick Stevenson’s School of Life Project, formerly known as The 5,000 Days Project. This ongoing series of films, started in 2001, documents children’s growth as they answer introspective questions once each year. Stevenson discussed his project and the power of storytelling at the Timpanogos Story Works Conference.

“I believe storytelling is as important as air and food because it is an essential part of who we are,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson aims to use the process of personal storytelling with young children to empower future generations.

“To raise more emotionally aware and mature children, we have to empower them with the knowledge that they have within themselves the tools to create their future,” Stevenson said. “They may not control everything that happens to them, but they control their reactions to those things.”

This self-awareness is not only raised as children participate in the documentary series, but also as they watch the films, observing their peers in a new light.

“In my thirteen years of going through this, the one conclusion I can reach is that every 12- to 13-year-old feels really alone because they’re too young to talk to each other and too old to talk to their parents — or so they think,” Stevenson said. “These vignettes let them know that they’re not alone, that other kids are going through the same issues.”

Stevenson said the films have a similarly profound impact on adults.

“These films help remind them of just how difficult it is to grow up because we tend to block that stuff out,” Stevenson said. “Most adults love coming of age movies primarily because it unlocks secrets in their own lives. I think it brings you back to who you were.”

Marina Spence, publicity chair for the storytelling institute, first became engaged with Stevenson’s work through his “The 5000 Days Project: Two Brothers” documentary which follows the lives of brothers Sam and Luke Nelson.

“They had this really tense relationship, and it just got tenser through their adolescent years,” Spence said. “Through this process of introspection, you just see a change in their relationship. It was a beautiful thing.”

Spence said Stevenson’s work supports the mission of the Story Works Conference by helping people explore new mediums and venues through which to share their stories.

“The mission of the conference is to provide resources and forums to explore how stories are used in all forms — in art, in corporate lives, in academia — all across the board,” Spence said. “Rick’s example of how he uses it in film is perfect because this is exactly what his mission is.”

Anne Burt, an organizer on the Story Works Conference publicity committee, said Stevenson’s presentation renewed her faith in the power of her personal narrative.

“Rick really made me think about my own story,” Burt said. “He asked some simple yet soul-reflective questions that helped me consider what story I could share with my friends and family. I left his presentation realizing that I could share my story and that my story can help other people.”

Stevenson said he sees a story in each day and a storyteller in everyone.

“In a way we’re all storytellers because that’s the way we communicate,” Stevenson said. “I’m writing my story every day by the choices and the things that I do.”

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