Impacting Lives Through Storytelling
By Lisa Truesdale
Robin Truesdale likes to tell stories.
“I believe every single person has a compelling story to tell,” she says, “And each individual story contributes to our understanding of the bigger story we all share.”
So, after 10 years learning the nuts and bolts of the industry as a video editor for a news station in Denver, Truesdale decided to follow her passion—storytelling through documentary film.
“I had become more interested in actually gathering the material myself, not just editing other people’s work,” she explains.
She went back to the University of Colorado Boulder and upped her journalism degree to a master’s, then did freelance cinematography for several years. One such project, supported by National Geographic, found her in Zimbabwe in 2006 and 2007 to work on the film “Tumbuka (Bloom),” which she explains is “about overcoming gender inequality in rural southern Africa.” But her first “real film,” as she calls it, was 2014’s “A Beautiful Equation: Einstein, Bohr and Grandmothers.”
“It was the first film I was able to do just the way I wanted from the start,” she says.
The film is a collection of tales about Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, two renowned physicists who were also lifelong friends. The stories are relayed with wisdom and delight by eight grandmothers—“Because who tells the best stories? Your grandmother,” Truesdale says.
While she was wrapping up its production, Truesdale met Judy Kreith, and that meeting led to her next film. Kreith’s mother, Marion, was one of thousands of Jewish refugees who fled war-torn Europe between 1939 and 1940 to escape Nazi capture, ending up in an unlikely tropical paradise in the Caribbean. Kreith was anxious to help her mother tell her story, Truesdale loves telling stories on film, and a years-long partnership was formed.
“Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels: A Haven in Havana” was released in 2017. Truesdale and Kreith worked side by side for years as co-directors, with Truesdale also serving as cinematographer and editor. The 46-minute documentary features an original soundtrack of Cuban and Jewish music, and subtitles in Spanish and Hebrew are available. It has been selected for dozens of film festivals and special screenings around the world, including one earlier this year in Antwerp, Belgium, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27). Truesdale and Kreith attended the event and also delivered some of their extensive research materials to be archived at Kazerne Dossin, a holocaust museum in Mechelen, Belgium.
During the film’s production, the pair interviewed Kreith’s mother six times, and Truesdale recalls being amazed at how a deeper layer of the story opened up with each session.
“Marion became so animated as she remembered more and more,” she says, “and she would laugh and smile at the memories as they unfolded.”
Although Truesdale and Kreith try to attend as many screenings around the country as they can, they were unable to make a California event last year. Lilliane Shuman, one of the other refugees appearing in the film, lived near the screening, so she attended instead, participating in a Q&A session afterwards. That evening, Shuman called Truesdale and Kreith excitedly.
“She told us that she felt like a movie star, and that it was the happiest day of her life,” Truesdale remembers. Truesdale was saddened to hear that Shuman died in March at age 89, but heartened when Shuman’s son messaged a few days later.
“He said, ‘You will never know what you did for my mom,’” recalls Truesdale. “He said she was so proud to be able to share that part of her life.”
Thanks to the simple gesture, Truesdale knew she had been involved in telling a powerful story.
“Hearing that? That’s success to me,” she says. “It’s why I do what I do. I learn from every story and from every person, and my goal is to make sure as many people as possible hear these stories, too.”
Editor’s note: Although Lisa and Robin Truesdale are related, we trusted Lisa to remain objective and professional when interviewing her sister-in-law for this article.