Do you remember the first time you found out you were related to a famous historical figure or celebrity? Filmmaker Erik Anderson recently created the short film “Charlemagne” after learning he was a direct descendant of the Holy Roman Emperor. The film is a humorous take on one man’s reaction to discovering his connection to Charlemagne thanks to Geni’s World Family Tree. We took a little time to get to know a little more about Erik and how he came to make the film about his famous ancestor.
Born in Vancouver, Canada, Erik mainly grew up in Victoria and today is living in Toronto where he works as a filmmaker, writer, and teacher. He earned his undergraduate degree in Political Science & Film at Concordia University and in 2016 earned a MFA in Film Production at York University. Now he teaches cinema while continuing to pursue his own projects.
“I’ve been obsessed with cinema as long as I can remember. I didn’t really know what to do about it though; there was no media training at my high school, and no film program at the University, so I didn’t bother going. My father had been a cameraman at the CBC in Vancouver, but perished on Mount Everest when I was a baby, so I didn’t have the chance to learn anything from him. I did however inherit a small Bolex camera and set about making my first short film when I was 21, learning by trial and error. ‘Le Red Balloon’ played at a few festivals, and I’ve tried to keep learning and makings things ever since.”
Erik’s grandfather and father, circa 1950 / Photo courtesy of Erik Anderson
Without much family around, Erick has always wanted to learn more about his roots. His mother was born in Norway and emigrated to Canada with her immediate family when she was a girl. His paternal side of the family is a mix of British Isles, Welsh, Scottish, Scotch-Irish, and English, but hasn’t been able to get this branch of the family tree beyond the mid-1880s.
“I don’t have any siblings or first cousins, I never met two of my biological grandparents, and my father died when I was still a baby. So I started off with all these holes in my life and in my own story. And I think I’ve wanted to fill them in a bit, or at least be informed about what was there. It makes you feel a bit more connected to them, and to yourself in a way. Plus it’s a fun cerebral activity as well. Family history is kind of like a puzzle that you piece together from what documents and scraps of information you can find. Sites like Geni make things a bit easier. They remind you too that family history is world history.”
Erik’s Norwegian grandmother with her brother and nieces in Norway in the early 1900s / Photo courtesy of Erik Anderson
Family stories have occasionally hinted at distant blue blood through Denmark in the past, but there wasn’t much information to corroborate it. At least until Erik joined Geni 8 years ago.
“I already had a tree on another website that I had put together on my own, but it was more of a solo hobby and I could only go so far. Then I was alerted to a second cousin’s efforts in Norway; he had started a Geni tree for our mutual Norwegian side and family members were joining up so we could all take a peek at his work. The fact that we could all easily contribute to what he was building was a great feature of the site. It felt more like an aggregation of communal knowledge rather than a hermetical pet project.”
As Geni’s World Family Tree has grown, users all around the world have discovered how they are related to historical figures and celebrities, including Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor. Known as the “Father of Europe,” all Europeans today can claim a relation to the king of the Franks. And Erik can count himself as one of the lucky descendants.
“I was pretty tickled about Charlemagne, I have to admit. It’s a big name. I allowed myself some momentary pride (which wasn’t entirely ironic) and then reminded myself that he probably has thousands upon thousands of descendants, so I should take it with a grain of salt. But around friends, I had fun keeping up the false pride.”
The humor he found in this led to Erik bring his interest in filmmaking and genealogy together by creating the short film, “Charlemagne.”
“[False pride] is a good comedic quality for cinematic characters. I had fun playing up the significance of the discovery amongst friends, and one night at a friend’s place I ended up saying “Charlemagne” in an overly performative whispery way, as if the word itself had great profundity, just to make her laugh. It was pretty close to the moment of the final shot in the film; I was even moving my hand along the wall the same way. That became the first image in my head, whispering Charlemagne in black & white along a brick wall. The idea snowballed pretty quickly into what would be the rest of that black & white sequence – walking around and whispering the word.”
Erik in Brussels / Photo courtesy of Erik Anderson
In a happy coincidence, Erik was heading to Belgium for the Brussels Independent Film Festival and took the opportunity to film in a European setting.
“It seemed like a good opportunity to get some footage, as a European background would clearly help the Charlemagne Euro-fantasy. It also juxtaposed well with Toronto visually, which was still snowy and miserable, and thus perfect as a setting for the “cold reality” of the non-fantasy parts. The rest was just sending-up the moment of discovery, satirizing myself a bit, and having fun with it.”
The final footage came together in the humorous short film, “Charlemagne.”
The Holy Roman Emperor is just one of many surprising connections Erik has found on Geni.
“I’ve made a ton. It’s been really fun. I happily nerd-out on the site. There have been a number of Scandinavian kings and queens, but there’s also been a Grand Prince in Kiev and an Empress Consort to the Byzantine Empire born in Turkey, which I never would have guessed. Once you find a blue blood trail it isn’t hard to find more, as power was hereditary (still is, in many places) and there tends to be a lot of intermarriage between royal families. It reminds you of that in terms of history, you can even end up being a descendant of multiple people in the same family because after a few generations there are new marriages between distant cousins. One of the good specific examples I’ve found is that Tostig Godwinsson, the Earl of Northumbria, is my 28th x great grandfather (the first connect to Charlemagne was through his wife Judith). His brother Harold was last Anglo-Saxon King of England up until the Battle of Hastings. Turns out he’s my 30th x great grandfather. The man who disposed him, William the Conqueror, is my fifth cousin 28 x removed. A few years earlier, Harold had married Ealdgyth, the widow of Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, the King of Wales, whom Harold had aided along in widow-ing (ahem). The name Gruffydd speaks to me in that my father’s father’s side is named Griffiths, which is an etymological derivative. So who knows! Maybe ancestors on my father’s side were interacting with ancestors on my mother’s side 1000 years ago. It’s what I’d like to explore next as my Geni tree is really just built on my Norwegian side so far. History is so interconnected. We all are.”
Many thanks Erik for sharing your story with us. Be sure to watch Erik’s film, “Charlemagne!”