One of the Backpack Journalism program’s greatest perks: the journey doesn’t end once your plane lands back in the United States. Unlike other Creighton FLPAs (Faculty-Led Program Abroad) which conclude in their destination country, Backpack Journalism continues in Omaha for approximately one and a half weeks, allowing us students to process our eye-opening experiences overseas with the people who have taken the physical (and spiritual) odyssey with us. It’s also a time for us to come down slowly from the daily heightened emotions we endured in Uganda, as well as a final period of cherishing each other’s companionship before breaking for the rest of summer.
But the last phase of Backpack Journalism isn’t just reflections, relationships and rainbows; we don’t let up on the gas pedal either. Rather, our team works harder than ever to find the story we want to tell.
If you aren’t familiar with editing videos or have never tried to string together pieces of a documentary before (don’t worry, I was naïve going into the editing room, too), you might expect the composition process to be one of the easier parts of filmmaking. After all, when you strip editing down to its basic components, it’s just combing through the footage you’ve already taken, scripting a story from the interviews or lines you have, and testing different sequences to find whatever arrangement delivers the most compelling storytelling.
Of course, developing anything that remotely resembles a rough cut is much more complicated than you’d initially think. First of all, even if you go into the editing process with a general idea of the story arc you’d like your film to take, executing that narrative depends entirely on the clarity of your interviewees’ answers and whether your shots visually reinforce those statements. In our case, we realized that some of the points we wanted to hit originally – radio and its peace-building role in the settlements, inaccessibility of soap for the refugees, and the different challenges posed against urban refugees versus rural refugees – were not strong enough segments to include simply because we didn’t have enough footage or direct quotes to translate the complexity of these ideas. We also had to rearrange chapters in the story or spend more time focusing on particular elements so that the documentary would be less erratic and more tonally consistent.
Another challenge with editing is finding the balance between talking heads and b-roll. You need your interviewees to provide context for the content onscreen, but you also can’t economize on your b-roll by allowing dialogue to operate as a primary storytelling device (that would be a violation of the age-old “show, don’t tell” rule). At the same time, your b-roll can be used to elevate the story or manifest an emotion visually; but again, without context from your interviewees, the message may get lost in translation. Even when you decide what interviews you’re going to include or what footage you can incorporate, it’s still hard on you as a filmmaker because you inevitably have to give up great shots or poignant quotes for the sake of telling a focused story.
Did I mention that editing involves transcribing all your interviews and organizing every piece of information you’ve gathered on your interviewees? Because that is also a huge part of working in the editing room. It took us over two full days to transcribe 24 interviews (29 if you count our group interview of teachers as one transcription per interviewee), so as you can imagine, quite a bit of patience and meticulous listening is required during the early stages of editing.
So yes, finding the story is not a straightforward process. I think John sums up the challenges of effective storytelling best: “It’s all a puzzle. We only have the pieces right now, and we’ve got to figure out how they fit together before we can start looking at the bigger picture.”
In a way, I feel the same about my reintegration back into the United States. I feel like a lone puzzle piece that no longer fits in the space I occupied before. I’ve got new tears and scars on my edges. The image on my surface is not as clear as it once was. Perhaps I belong in a new picture.
Luckily, I’m not trying to solve this puzzle on my own. I feel incredibly blessed by the presence of my Backpack Journalism family, who not only empathize with my struggles, but also understand them. I don’t know how I would be able to make sense of my new, ruined self without the genuine friendship and honest conversations I’ve received from these compassionate, insightful, and fiercely loving students.
We’re finding the story together. And along the way, we’re also finding ourselves.