The Documentary’s Capacity for Memory

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Film is a special story form — one that captures memory, current events and future fantasy via contemporary art and digital process. Through the filmmaker’s unique perspective, we are pulled into a narrative that is both deeply personal and communal.

Leslie Ann Epperson

Leslie Ann Epperson — the film’s writer, director, producer and editor. Photo courtesy, Many Bones, One Heart website:

Perhaps Many Bones, One Heart is a most telling locally-based example of memory and storytelling in film. Leslie Ann Epperson — the film’s writer, director, producer and editor — had a 20-year career making documentary programs for broadcast television, before she introduced Many Bones, One Heart, her first independent film. Although she believes that it is harder to make a good narrative using real life stories, she hopes to continue her filmmaking with nonfiction. “The most interesting stories are the true ones,” she advises:

B: Film can be a curated collection of digital images as well as a repository of memories. Will you comment on this, as a film director, and explain how film brings memory to life further? 

LAE: What I want to share via non-fiction film is the experience of the All Souls Procession, a flamboyant cultural tradition honoring the dead — but more importantly, I wanted to reveal the life experience of the artists who have been producing the Procession for the past 20 years.

Still image from Many Bones, One Heart.

Still image from Many Bones, One Heart. Photo courtesy, Many Bones, One Heart website:

In a sense, film is all memory. It consists of people remembering things and sharing their lives through interview. It also depicts a record of action and interaction. It is all past tense, so in a sense it is all a memory in image form. Films also work with the logic of a dream — we viewers accept when a film jumps through time and space, because dreams also jump around in time and space and we quickly make the necessary cognitive leaps.

Many Bones, One Heart, in particular, provides a record of the history of the Procession — how it started, and how it has grown over time. I tried to present the unfolding of historic action so that viewers can decide for themselves how and why this cultural tradition has formed, by presenting it in the form of an engaging narrative. It is a story — and memories are representations of our lives in story form. We think in stories, we talk in stories. And all these stories are culled from memories. So a good film will feel like an experience, not a dictation. It will be understood as a story — which then becomes, for the viewer, a memory.

B: Please comment on your special involvement with All Souls Procession over the years, how your interest and involvement came to be, and how the Procession was a personal channel for your memories. 

LAE: I was first introduced to the Procession by Susan Kay Johnson. In 1992, I visited Susan in her downtown studio, and she told me about creating a performative event with friends, to help her grieve the death of her father. I told her about my creation of a book about my mother’s untimely death when I was 12. I agreed with Susan that public commemorations of loss are important and remarkably healing. We agreed that sharing stories of loss creates connection with others. It forms community.

Still image from Many Bones, One Heart.

Still image from Many Bones, One Heart. Photo courtesy, Many Bones, One Heart website:

In 1996, I saw the growing All Souls Procession during Downtown Saturday Night — it had become a wild, artistic, block-long parade. Then, in 2004, while recovering from a car accident and a subsequent divorce, I experienced the much larger, incredibly creative All Souls Procession as it came down 4th Ave. I photographed it and made some art pieces based on these images. I continued to do that for several years, delighting in the jubilant parade.

In 2010 I took a documentary workshop and realized I needed to be making docs again — before the accident I had created a career making doc programs for PBS affiliates. The workshop made me realize how much I missed it. I had an epiphany — no one had made a good documentary about the All Souls Procession, about its history, or about the people behind the scenes. So I decided I would. I knew Nadia Hagen was now in charge of it, so I set about getting hold of her.

Making this film has been a personal journey… Anyone who has loved (which is just about everyone) has also lost a loved one to death. That heartbreak is something we all share. This is a story about artists, as well, and it’s about the difficulty of being an artist — good artists make themselves naked, in a sense, and very vulnerable. We try to express, to evoke our deepest feelings and thoughts in a way that touches the hearts and souls of others. That is scary. We often fail in the attempt. There is no money in it, though we find ways to get by. Or we fundraise and trust to the generosity of others to support our vision! So this story is a personal channel for my feelings about being human — about loving, and losing, and about making art, the need we all have for poetry, to express those ineffable things that prosaic words cannot.

Still image from Many Bones, One Heart.

Still image from Many Bones, One Heart. Photo courtesy, Many Bones, One Heart website:

B: Through the lens of your camera, how do you see the significance of memory helping transcend grief for those you see processing and participating? 

LAE: People share their memories of their beloved deceased in a number of creative ways. In the most direct way, they carry photos of their loved one, often ornamented with flowers or lights. They roll shrines — I saw a heartbreaking shrine a few years ago of a baby who had died. There were panels of photos, carefully painted and decorated — it was beautiful and so sad. People make Big Head Puppets in the image of a dead loved one, which is powerful — or they create symbols that represent that person, as Susan Kay Johnson did with her rolling Dragon Puppet. The Dragon represents her mentor. He loved dragons and had a collection of dragon images.

B: November is such an important time for memory here in the Southwest (or anywhere where All Souls is respected). In general as an artist, how do you feel art and artistic expression can curate memories, particularly at this time and in our region?

LAE: Autumn is the time of harvest, the time of change, the time when the year is clearly aging, the leaves fall, the trees are bare, the green things die. That echoes human life. I am in the autumn of my life — I will turn 60 in November. Winter is not far away. And death is closer all the time. Halloween allows us to mock death, to taunt it. But All Souls Day, or the many worldwide traditions that pay homage to the Harvest or the fall — these allow us to reflect on death, to honor the time that we have had, to celebrate that what we have created, and to wish that we had our time again — with our friends, with family that are gone. But we go on — as the changing seasons show us we must. There will be spring again. I am grateful to be here in Tucson, and to witness the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead. It is such an open, honest recognition of mortality. It is refreshing and for me, far more meaningful than Halloween.


When we gather and see how much loss we all experience, there is an opening of the heart. However different we may be — compassion fills the space between us.


  • Many Bones, One Heart is a 2015 Arizona International Film Festival and a Winner in the My Hero International Film Festival. Learn more here.

Leslie Ann’s picks on documentaries that honor culture and memory:

  • Still Dreaming “A beautiful film set in an assisted living home for retired actors. Some of the residents act in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is sad and joyful and all about memory and culture. It was created by Jilann Spitzmiller and Hank Rogerson. Jilann was my mentor and guide throughout the process of making my film.” (LAE)
  • University of Arizona Professor Jacob Bricca’s film, Finding Tatanka “This is another fantastic film about life and loss – The film follows Jacob’s search to understand his father Kit Bricca. Jacob also helped me with a very thorough critique of a Many Bones rough cut.” (LAE)

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