All posts by Tim Guthrie

I am reminded why I teach…

Pic of a girl in Newtok that wanted me to take her photo
Pic of a girl in Newtok that wanted me to take her photo

During the final day with the backpack journalism students, I told them about a time when I used to teach drawing classes. I loved teaching drawing. I really did.

Many beginning drawing students, though, would start off the semester lamenting that they “can’t draw a straight line” and some were even apparently intimidated by my art. I’d always respond, “I can’t draw a straight line, either. I use a ruler.”

Drawing doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Regardless, like any other ability, I am convinced that with the proper training and encouragement, anyone can learn to draw. I would make sure they understood that pushing a pencil across a piece of paper was the easy part. It was learning to see and interpret what you see that was the challenge, and I promised I would teach them each how to do that.

After weeks of instruction and progressively more difficult assignments we would eventually arrive at the Final Critique Day. They would hang their final projects and pat each other on the back. The students, those same students that began the semester rendering skewed perspectives of clumsy coffee cups, would bestow giddy praise upon their fellow classmates as they admired each other’s drawings while I watched silently from the back of the room.

Once the class settled into their seats in front of their remarkable artwork hanging on the wall, we’d share a moment of admiration for the work they had produced.

Then, I would usually say, “I thought you told me at the beginning of the semester that you couldn’t draw?”

The smiles on their faces and the pride in their work was always a joy to witness.

These backpack journalism trips are very similar. We would start each summer with a week-long Video Boot Camp where they would experience quick and intense instruction on the operation of audio and video equipment and learn basic video framing and lighting techniques. We’d discuss the differences between apertures, shutter speeds, ISO settings and white balance. It is challenging for everyone, and to be honest, most students get a bit wigged out.

Seriously, go back and read the first posts they wrote before we left for Alaska. The overall greatest concerns were about using intimidating equipment and worrying they wouldn’t be able to contribute good work to the film.

However, video, just like drawing, is less about the tools than it is about learning to see and figuring out how to best capture what they see through the lens. It’s basically about finding a visual way to tell a story through a series of clips.

Some of the students were rockstars because they had already been in at least one of my video courses and had solid previous experience. The less experienced students paid close attention and shadowed the more experienced ones until they felt comfortable taking key roles in each shoot.

While in Alaska, I would give impromptu critiques and advice and remind them of the things we discussed during Video Boot Camp. I can always tell whether we were capturing enough to assemble a film once we return. If we weren’t, I’d tell them to get more B-roll, and they would happily comply.

When we got back to Creighton, we initially had the arduous task of organizing and naming all our footage. We’d split up into a writing group and a video editing group. Then, we’d hammer away for a week until we had something resembling a story.

We don’t end the class with a finished film. We’ve never been able to do that. We do, however, usually end with a rough cut that generally resembles the final film. Watching the film on the final day is something like looking at the drawing students’ final projects hanging on the wall. You can hear them shuffling in their seats, happy that a great shot they captured made it into the film. You can hear the subtle gasps when they see, for the first time, the sequences that their fellow classmates constructed,.

After watching the film, I like to say, “You created a film in just a few weeks. That’s amazing.”

I encourage them to pat each other on the back, once again.

It’s a joy, and at that moment on the final day of class, whether seeing the proud expressions on the faces of the drawing students or the faces of the video students, I am pleasantly content.

I am reminded why I teach.

A Huge Problem

Screenshot from the game Osmos HD

Since our mini-doc will have a thread that touches on climate change, I thought I’d post some thoughts about the issue that I’ve been thinking about for a while. 

A couple years ago, I read an article about climate change in Rolling Stone by Bill McKibben.  I’m one of the people that believe we need to stop calling it global warming or climate change, both of which sound harmless, and start calling it what it is:  a climate crisis.   McKibben’s article was clearly about our climate in crisis.  He used numbers and math to make the crisis clear and undeniable.

Numbers don’t lie, so he proceeded to lay out the numbers for the reader.  It was so unbelievable that I read it again the following day before leaving Omaha for Lake Tahoe, where I was scheduled to be a Visiting Artist for the week.  Omaha was predicted to hit triple digit temperatures nearly every day of the week, so I was looking forward to spending a week at the lake.

On my flight, I played a video game called Osmos and I was reminded that I am a part of the problem.  I am clearly contributing to the crisis simply by choosing to fly.

Osmos, by the way, is a marvel of game design: Beautiful graphics, a clean, simple design, and an even more simple goal — “Become huge.”  With each level you conquer, the challenge is greater.  It becomes more difficult to become huge and win the game without the environment around you swallowing you up first.  If you fail, you get the notice “lifeform terminated.” It is a race against time.  Once you pass a tipping point that is irreversible, the game abruptly ends. As you improve and get to the most difficult levels, you realize you have to start replaying levels repeatedly in order to win.

It goes without saying, of course, that we won’t get multiple opportunities when it comes to Earth.  We only have one Earth.

Some smart people propose we could create an atmosphere on Mars and make that planet livable. But, there are two basic problems with the idea:

First, it has become increasingly clear we won’t have time. Some have calculated we’ve already passed a tipping point. 

Second, if we can’t save our own planet, which miraculously already has the perfect conditions for life, how realistic is it that we can change a hostile climate of a dead planet not all that much larger than our Moon?

The problem has become huge.  Increasingly, we have less opportunities and time to correct it.  

We have one planet, and if we screw it up, it’s Game Over.

An environmental thread

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Photo I took of the glacier collapsing into the water

I hope people enjoy it and I’ll be curious if viewers welcome it, but there is a strong environmental thread that developed in our mini-doc.

I heard a story a couple of years ago on NPR which addressed environments similar to Alaska. Rather than the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, however, it addressed the loss of habitat for polar bears once we lose the remaining arctic ice. The story suggested we save a handful of polar bears from extinction and put them into artificial environments and zoos.

What was amazing about the story wasn’t that they were talking about the possibility of the loss of polar bears, nor the possibility of the complete loss of arctic ice, for that matter. It was the absolute and casual certainty they displayed that it will happen.

They didn’t devote any time to debate like the 24 hour news stations would have done. The scientists had already moved past the point of analyzing the fate of the polar ice caps and moved on to whether or not it was worth saving polar bears at all if there would no longer exist an environment in the wild in which to reintroduce them. Would we simply be saving some polar bears for our own curiosity and enjoyment?

It actually brings me to a concern I have about documentaries, in general. Are they purely for our entertainment, curiosity and enjoyment? Or, can they actually make a difference?

My hope that they can educate in a way that actually changes people’s behavior usually feels wildly and overly optimistic. It’s what got me interested in making them in the first place, though. I want to educate, share, and try and make things better than when I found them. It’s kind of what artists do, really: Make things better than we found them. The best art, I think, also makes us question what is around us, reveals universal truths, educates and inspires.

However, I’m also a realist. Yes, we want it to educate, inspire and make people question what we are doing to the planet, but I am doubtful our film can make any real impact.

Of course, that won’t stop us.

And, naturally, I hope people enjoy it.

Don’t Stop Filming

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Photo I took of a guy in Newtok trying to train his recalcitrant dogs to pull a sled of garbage to his boat near the dump.

Usually on these trips, the subject of photographing people in vulnerable positions comes up. Students don’t usually feel very comfortable pointing their cameras at people they don’t know, let alone people in compromised positions.

This trip, however, students were rarely put in such a position. I mean, not like in the Dominican Republic, and certainly not our first trip to Uganda, which had some truly difficult moments.

Nico shared some moments where his dad would point his camera at people in awkward, if not compromised, positions.

“My dad is weird. He would take video of fat people on vacation and would say things like, ‘look at how fat that person is’ while he filmed them in their swimming suits walking along beach.” He said. “That one is really fat.”

“He also filmed my sister eating sand instead of stopping her like most parents would. One time, I had an accident on my bike that my dad caught on film. I remember being hurt on the ground and crying out to him ‘Stop filming!’ and my mom yelled at him to help me, but he just kept filming.”

Usually, though, the moments are much more challenging.

While we were in Alaska, the Omaha World Herald ran a photo of the dying girl on a stretcher after a tornado hit Pilger, NE. They were criticized nationally, by some. I understand the criticism, but it reminded me of criticism they got after running a photo of a soldier flipping the bird at bystanders after an IED explosion in Iraq. War is hell, but people want it sanitized. Granted, I wasn’t trained in journalism, but I don’t believe in sanitizing things. I would rather allow things to be as raw as possible.

A moment came when I realized this group of students didn’t see really difficult raw situations which they felt uncomfortable photographing. A part of me wished they had seen much more difficult situations.

Trust me, I know exactly how that sounds. Of course I realize what that means and am actually glad that things were so much better than we expected them to be. For that I am thankful. I am thankful life is better for the people in Bethel and Newtok than it might have been.

Still, a part of me wanted students to see most of the difficult aspects of some of the people’s lives in the villages. I really do wish all the students could have made it to Newtok. I haven’t been writing about it (Tony did here), but Newtok might have affected me more than I realized at first. In some twisted way, I am thankful for that. So, while I’ll admit I am ultimately thankful people’s lives weren’t worse in Bethel, I’m still conflicted students weren’t put in more uncomfortable positions while filming people, I still want them to see how difficult life is for people living on the margins.

Mostly, though, I am thankful I got to spend two weeks in Alaska with such an amazing group.

We need to say sorry to the land

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Photo I took in Newtok pointed in the direction of the Bering Sea

You will read about this over and over from others, but I might as well share the same story.

For the past five days, I have been saying we are talking about issues that can be very personal to the people here, but we had no emotion in any of the interviews. None. Everyone has been very stoic.

Then, this morning, we got a call from a college student named Nelson that we had been interested in interviewing. He had worked on a film about climate change and we hoped he could give us a perspective from a younger generation. Because of the responses form younger people in previous films, we weren’t extraordinarily optimistic, or anything. Still, we wanted to interview Nelson.

When the call came, it was a call basically telling us the interview wouldn’t happen. His boss didn’t want him to leave and he couldn’t interview at the time we had scheduled and couldn’t meet tomorrow (our last day here). I talked to his boss, Eileen, and tried to explain why we were so interested in talking to him and promised it would not be a long interview. She said the only way it could happen is if we “did it now.” So I told John we had to do it “now” and we rushed an impromptu group to the interview. Usually we have a student conduct the interview, but I told John he should do it with such short notice. I ended up throwing in some questions, as well.

Nico, Haley, Hannah, Leah, Tony, and Erin did an amazing job of getting everything together in less than 10 minutes, and we set up quickly in a horrible dark room with no expectations we would get anything great, let alone good.

Then Nelson started to talk.

His answers to every question were great. We kept getting more and more excited about how well the interview was going. I told Nico, “I was assembling the film in my head as Nelson was talking.” I mean, his answers were so perfect and I knew what footage we already had.

Then Nelson did something extraordinary.

At one point, I said in between questions, “You are going to bring a tear to my eye. Your reposes are amazing.” A few minutes later, I actually started to tear up. John was directly below me, and he told me he started to tear up. Nelson already seemed emotional, but then started tearing up, himself, and choked out his response: “We need to say sorry to the land… we need to find a way to be forgiven by the land.”

I turned to Hannah, who was in tears, and I just about lost it.

Nelson did something even more extraordinary.

He just delivered us our film.

Newtok, Alaska

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Photo I took in Newtok. I shot video of the same thing that will likely be in the film

This morning, Tony and I leave for the small coastal village of Newtok on the edge of the Bering Sea in order to film important footage we aren’t able to capture here in Bethel. Our flight leaves in the morning and returns around dinner time. We can’t take all the students because it isn’t in our budget, which is unfortunate.

The village is said to be one of the most depressed villages in the region, and is fractured and struggling to survive. John’s daughter, Erin, reminded us that these little planes crash all the time (we’ll be fine, of course). I’ve been to many communities on the margins, so I’m hardly concerned, but it does remind me that I should spend more time sharing. So, I decided to finally write a post.

There are lots of different types of footage we desperately need. We need some shots we likely won’t get (moose, caribou, or other wildlife) and some we should be able to get even in our limited time on the coast (erosion, buildings collapsing into the sea). Hopefully we can get some aerial footage that is useable, as well.

I’m a bit sad to leave our group. They are such an amazing team. I don’t think I’ve properly expressed how proud I am of each of them and how much they’ve learned in order to make this film good and worthwhile. We have some massively talented students on the trip, and I love them all. However, we desperately need a greater variety of b-roll, so this trip should be very valuable.

A side note for those not familiar with these backpack journalism projects: These are really John’s babies, and I do my best not to impose myself too strongly on each trip. Both John and Carol are technically the teachers for the classes for which the students get credit — a theology class and a writing class. They are not enrolled in a video class. I’m only here to make sure the film happens and is done well. That’s my role. The director and editor, and maybe cinematographer.

Still, it doesn’t seem right that I am going to Newtok and not John. Carol and I both feel blessed he includes us on these projects. But, that’s just one of the amazing examples that make him a great Executive Producer, etc. He does and understands all the important things necessary to coordinate the trip, research the story, line up the interviews, work out our outline and so many other things. He wears a lot of hats. It really is impressive. Plus, this story might be closer to his heart than any of the previous films. It is certainly closer to mine. I’ve been wanting to address climate change in a mini-doc for a long time.

Carol is unquestionably the best at staying focused on the main thread in the story and finding the best ways to ask the questions in order to get the quotes we need. And, she understands how to assemble an engaging story. We all agree we are on track to deliver a film as good as Mato Oput, but we have to wait and see if it happens once we start slicing up the footage. All I know is we are lacking in the types of visuals we need in order to compliment the stories we are collecting. Sitting down with Carol (and John until he fell asleep in his chair – he’s running himself ragged) to start reviewing interviews simply reminds me how much more we need in order to cover everything. Carol is great at editing things down to only what is necessary to the story, but right now, we are in the collection phase and need as much as we can get so we can make the choices in the editing room.

And so, we leave for Newtok. We leave the group with a heavy responsibility to gather the kinds of footage we need to help tell the story the Yup’ik people deserve. We leave to gather imagery that John and Carol, and our amazing team of budding filmmakers deserve.

They’ve worked so hard. Tony and I can’t let them down.

I’m down, but I’m not out…

I’m at a loss and I don’t know where to begin.

Ironically, when I am at a loss for words, I ramble on longer because it takes me so long to find the words to make my point.  So, be prepared for a long post…

I’m in Paris as I write this, but I’m not enjoying myself as much as the previous times I’ve been here.  I’d be a jackass if I said I don’t love Paris.  I do.  This really is one of my favorite cities.

Somehow, though, this stay is difficult.  It’s weird, but I’ll try and explain.

I’m fully aware it has much to do with returning here after this year’s trip to Uganda.  I think that anything negative I say about being in Paris will come off as condescending to anyone that hasn’t been here … or even to those that have.

Maybe it’s because I was feeling ill the last two days in Uganda and I was getting cranky and a bit melancholy just before I left.

Traveling to the developing world always seems to make me somewhat despondent after I return.  The few times I’ve been to eastern or southern Africa (or even when I lived for a short time in Africa), or the Dominican Republic, for that matter, I’ve felt this way.  This time, though, it seems more intense.  Maybe because I haven’t really returned home.

I am fully aware the contrast between the slums in Africa and the affluence of Paris plays a huge part in how I feel right now.

I promised myself when I landed in Paris I wouldn’t have an agenda.  I would simply check into my hotel and then wander the streets aimlessly.  I’ve been here a half dozen times, now, I think, so it wasn’t like I had a checklist of things I wanted to see.  I just wanted to relax and enjoy the city.

But contrasting the crumbling cement, earthen and grass homes in Uganda with the gold-leafed statues near the Invalides and its massive guided dome is … jarring.

Contrasting a person selling used plastic tubs out of a dirt floored corrugated steel shack against a person selling Berthillon ice cream on the streets of Île St Louis makes me feel like shit.  It even felt somehow wrong to enjoy the ice cream.  Stupid, I know.

Acknowledging privilege makes me feel lousy.

I know I’ve had advantages and benefits from being born in the States… being born a white male, etc.  I knew a guy in college that acted superior after being served a meal.  He jokingly and quietly said, “Servitude!” to the back a waitress after she walked away with the dirty plates.  It was a pompous, haughty thing to say and I was taken aback.  I understand why some people feel superior when they are privileged, but it has always made me feel somehow nauseous.  But, admitting this probably makes me come off as patronizing.

I was one of the protestors during the Occupy Movement, and I have said plenty in regards to the responsibility of the 1% in the US.  However, I also know I am one of the 1% when it comes to the global population.  So are you.  Check this site to verify that.

I am also aware that the wealth gap is much greater than people perceive it to be.  There are tons of charts out there to verify that, but here is a recent one.

And, as Mia Farrow and others are quoted saying, with knowledge comes responsibility.  Knowledge can be a burden.  More so when you learn how poverty affects so many.  Worse, when you understand the rights of so many are being egregiously violated.  And, in Uganda, the problem is an epidemic.  There are few opportunities.

I’m trying to avoid being political, but as Maddow once said, “…here’s the thing about rights – they’re not actually supposed to be voted on. That’s why they’re called rights.”  The poor have the same rights as the wealthy. The wealth and health of people are tied together like the health of the planet.

On a side note, we are working on a mini-documentary about music in Uganda.  Music, like happiness or grief, is a universal thing.  It is a language we can use to express a common humanity.  Needs are also universal – health, food, air, security… It’s one of the reasons if the Supreme Court rules for corporations and against the poor on Monday, I will be enraged. [edit: They did]

…knowledge and responsibility.

Unfortunately for me, I sometimes respond to knowledge and privilege with guilt.  With privilege also comes a responsibility.  I look back at the past 20 years and realize I’ve done too little with my responsibility, hence the guilt, I suppose.

But, guilt is not a useful emotion and it is an even worse weapon.  I hate feeling guilty and hate it more when people try and make others feel that way.  I once heard a person imply that someone who was crippled was that way because he didn’t believe in God.  If he simply believed more, God would cure him.  Needless to say I was nauseated by the realization that some people think that way.

Unfortunately, guilt is what I feel.  At myself.  At the circumstances that put me here.  At the privilege I have been awarded by chance…

Whether we are talking about France, Uganda, the United States or anywhere else, I know much of this has to do with inequalities in numerous forms:  Financial, structural, governmental… Ultimately, maybe it isn’t the difference in geography that makes me feel this way, though, but the people.

I have traveled extensively on my own in the past, and I am usually happy doing so.  This time, though, sitting at a sidewalk café felt extraordinarily lonely.

I wanted to share the day with Beth, but she couldn’t be here.

I’m really at a loss.

But maybe I’ll figure things out when I am finally back home.