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He interviewed his daughter on her birthday for 17 years. This is what he learned

Ella Rosenblatt on her second birthday with her dad, Jay Rosenblatt.
Courtesy of HBO
Ella Rosenblatt on her second birthday with her dad, Jay Rosenblatt.

What does a modern childhood and father-daughter relationship look like? One man documented the journey.

Who is he? Jay Rosenblatt, an artist and documentary maker. And, of course, a father.

  • In his documentary, How Do You Measure A Year, he trains his camera on his daughter, Ella. Each birthday, he asks her a series of questions — often including responses to the same question years apart — and captures Ella's evolution from an active two-year-old to a reflective 18-year-old about to head off to college.
  • Rosenblatt has a master's degree in counseling psychology and previously worked as a therapist.
  • How Do You Measure A Year was nominated for a 2023 Academy Award.
  • What's the impact?

  • The documentary is incredibly intimate and, by its very nature as a long-running project, offers a rare documented insight into what a modern childhood can be like for an American girl. 
  • Rosenblatt's questions to Ella include everything from "what is power?" to "how do you feel about our relationship?" and "what are you most afraid of?"
  • There are recurring themes, like Ella's love of singing, animals and her family. But there's complexity, too, as Ella grows older and mentions arguing with her Dad, and the value of making up afterwards.
  • On Ella's 14th birthday, Rosenblatt asks, "Are you happy?" To which the answer is: "Not really, but I'm working on it." 
  • Rosenblatt's work often sets out to explore "our emotional and psychological cores," according to his website, examining things that "are personal in their content yet universal in their appeal."
  • What's he saying? Rosenblatt spoke to All Things Considered's Ailsa Chang about his documentary.

    On including the parts about fighting:

    She was very honest, she talks about us fighting a lot ... but I was very happy to hear that she also said, "But we make up, so it's OK."

    I think I blocked a lot of that [memory of arguing], you know. I think it had to do with just kind of silly things when you look back on it ... just typical parental interactions at a certain age.

    On how he felt watching the footage for the first time while editing:

    There were a lot of very moving moments for me, when I look back at all the footage. It kind of choked me up. But especially when she was 18 I decided to ask her to speak to the camera without me there. So I had never seen that until I was editing what she actually said to the camera [that she loves him a lot]. And it was so touching, you know, I really choked up watching that. It felt like a gift that she gave me and the film.

    On how Ella, now 22, feels about the film:

    I showed her the rough cut and the fine cut and got her consent. And I asked her if there were things that felt uncomfortable for her. She says there were a couple of moments that she said were a little embarrassing, but she thought it over and then she said, "No, go ahead. It's the truth." And she felt OK with it. 

    So, what now?

  • How Do You Measure A Year is on the streaming service Max now.
  • Learn more:

  • Worried about your kids' video gaming? Here's how to help them set healthy limits
  • How a 93-year-old visited every national park and healed a family rift in the process
  • Finding generations of family — and history — on Chinatown's Mott Street
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
    Gurjit Kaur
    Gurjit Kaur is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. A pop culture nerd, her work primarily focuses on television, film and music.