All posts by Tim Guthrie

Beth and Uganda

[With apologies for an overwhelming number of links, there are many for those interested in digging deeper into this story]

A tiny sphere containing Beth's ashes
A tiny sphere containing Beth’s ashes (Moyo, Uganda)

Most of Beth’s cremated remains are in Nebraska, near her headstone, or around North Platte.

Friends know I’ve taken small amounts of her ashes, contained in little spheres bearing her image, to as many countries and continents as I can. It began as an intense and personal grieving process — an act of love and devotion — but also became something I shared very publicly on social media. It’s now more of a promise, than anything. It’s also something of an obligation, I suppose, in the way wedding vows are, but it’s much more than a mere obligation.

I saved a little of her ashes in case I made it to more continents than I had originally planned. So, as I travel with Creighton University colleagues and students, I have found myself with the opportunity to bless the African continent with a touch of Beth — a whisper of her soul. A tiny, symbolic, yet meaningful amount of ashes will be left in the country of Uganda.

There are a couple stories I’ll share about our connection to Uganda and to Africa.

Many years ago, I had lost my wedding ring. I was always removing it when getting dirty from construction work or messy in my studio. I never wore jewelry, and I was always taking it off and misplacing it. Somewhere in our wedding photos, there is an image of us holding hands, wearing our rings. I purchased the diamond I used when I made her wedding ring when I lived in Bophuthatswana, Africa. I only lived there for four or five months, but we used to write each other letters and look forward to our once-a-week phone call. She didn’t know I’d bought her a diamond until the day I proposed to her.

Years later, one day the ring was gone. I’d lost it.

I talked about replacing it, but Beth said she didn’t care. She still had her ring.

Fast-forward to a day not long after she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and Dystonia, she seemed worried I wouldn’t stay by her side. I wanted to show her I was committed to her — to us — like my friend Wayne was devoted to his wife, my lifelong friend, Pam.

That time in our lives coincided with a previous backpack journalism trip to Uganda.  Near the end of that trip, I asked everyone if they wouldn’t mind if I shopped for a new wedding band before we left. I decided to buy a simple, silver ring, which I still have to this day. You can see it on my finger on the blog I kept, as well as in the movie I made for Beth — my love letter to her, which was shown at a bunch of festivals, including the Omaha Film Festival.

Then one day, I woke up and Beth was gone. I’d lost her, as well.

Specific days or anniversaries are hard (birthdays – both mine and hers, our wedding anniversary, etc), but so are times like returning to Africa. Today, as I find myself back in Uganda, recalling our life together, it seems appropriate to return with the same colleagues, and with a bit of her cremains. I thought about wearing my ring one last time, but decided I didn’t want to risk losing it.

Beth loved waterfalls. I’ll leave some of her at Murchison Falls. I’ll likely also throw one into the falls, which will break apart as it journeys up the Nile toward Alexandria and the Mediterranean Sea. The final resting place will be nowhere near the falls. I’d like to leave one in a nature reserve, if I’m able. She loved traveling and loved nature documentaries.

I normally leave her ashes in private, but there have been times where I’ve left her remains while accompanied by friends. It’s been a powerful experience for me those rare times I’ve included friends or allowed a witness to those private moments. It becomes more ceremonial, somehow. It’ll be a challenge to find time alone on this trip for such moments, but there’s a small part of me that believes I should share the experience with this group, even if only once. We’ll see.

Either way, I’ll bless each sphere containing her ashes with the metta I say for her when I bury “BBs” at special locations. It’s a different form of the metta she used to say for friends and family that I say only for her. It’s been a long time since I’ve done it. I always hope she’d feel blessed and honored. I’ll never know.

For Beth:

May you dwell in safety.
May you rest in peace.
May you be free from suffering.
May you know my gratitude and love.

For the rest of you:

May you be happy.
May you be safe.
May you be peaceful.
May you be healthy.
May you know my gratitude and love.

Happy to be in Uganda

These blogs are really for the students. Occasionally, a faculty member will chime in and contribute a post. Some years I’ll post more than others (you can click on my name as a contributor and see my past posts). This year, I haven’t been posting at all. The students have been writing nice blog entries, though. It’s always a joy to watch them grow on these trips, and I’m thankful to be included, as a filmmaker, an artist, and as a traveler/explorer, but mostly as a professor. 

Reflecting on past backpack trips, I’ve become closer to most of those students. I think John is often a father figure for them, and Carol another mother, but I’ve always felt like students felt less connected with me. I probably joke around too much, but this year it might potentially be worse because I had so little to do with the front end of this project, and I was even forced to leave for Uganda two days later because of my responsibilities with the Museum of Alternative History. 

The backpack project is John’s brainchild and he’s ultimately the driving force, and Carol is always involved early on. I don’t get in gear until the cameras first get pulled. I’m already creating the film in my head as I reconstruct interviews in my mind, wondering what b-roll we will need and how the puzzle pieces will fit together. That’s my real job: teaching students to be filmmakers, but later I become the main editor once we are back. Long after the students are gone for the summer, I’ll still be tweaking the film, so I suppose that’s always been my main contribution — after the project ends. 

Still, I wish I got closer to the students. 

I have a history with Africa. I used to live here, back when my wife and I first started dating. We’d been dating only a year, or so, when I got the job offer to move to Bophuthatswana. We were apart for nearly half a year. 

I could write about that. I could write about past backpack trips. I could write about the students. To be honest, most likely I won’t post often on this trip. I feel like I’m on autopilot, this time, learning my new place. It’s been a while since I’ve been on one of these, though not by my choice. It’s good to be back. 

If I post anything after this, it’ll likely be about something more personal than I’d normally write. Again, you can read my old posts about the trips, themselves, if you’re looking for posts about experiences. 

I’ll just leave it at this: I’m happy to be here with my colleagues and these students. 

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

Osmos
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

glacier 7H2A8991sm
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

newtok 7H2A8066sm
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

newtok sky 7H2A8097sm
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.