Backpack Journalism at Creighton University is a collaboration between the Theology Department and the Journalism, Media, & Computing Department. It came about because of a theologian interested in social justice and filmmaking and a journalist and an artist interested in filmmaking and social justice.
Every other summer, a small group of students travels to a community in search of a story. Led by professors Dr. John O’Keefe, Tim Guthrie, and Carol Zuegner, the students immerse themselves in the communities, interviewing, filming, recording, and writing. When they return to Creighton, they take the stories they have collected and develop them into a short documentary film. The Backpack Journalism documentaries have been accepted at several film festivals across the United States. The class has traveled to such far-flung places as the Dominican Republic and Uganda, Bethel Alaska and Nogales Arizona/Sonora.
The next project is scheduled for the summer of 2020 and will focus on deforestation in Eastern Africa.
I left Alaska knowing we had done a lot of hard work there: 13 interviews, hours and hours of B roll, and pages of notes and rough outlines for the story.
We couldn’t physically see the work until we were once again in Hitchcock 205, less than 24 afters setting foot in the Omaha airport after the flight from Anchorage. Read Madeline’s reaction to this here.
In the classroom, we found ourselves labeling and sorting files, looking through raw footage and transcribing most of the interviews. I thought the fun was over once we stepped back into the Murphy Media Lab—no more tundra adventures, no more interviews, no more games of Bananagrams or BS, no more fresh salmon for dinner.
A different type of fun was just starting. After a few days of getting everything organized, the writing team assembled and dove into the best quotes from our interviewees and started the process.
Writing and rewriting. Arranging and rearranging.
Matching the timeline to the script. Matching the script to the timeline.
It’s time-consuming, tedious, and hard but I love this.
When we figure out a storyline, order of narration, or sequence of clips there’s a sense of accomplishment in the room. We look around the room with smiles on our faces and high fives are given all around, but we still know it will be a long way to go until it is finished. But those little successes keep a smile on my face.
Throughout all of this, I feel just as passionate as when we were in Alaska. Back in Omaha is the where we take the words from Alaska and craft them into a story in the best way we can.
I love seeing all of the pieces we collected during our time in Bethel come together, and knowing that I’m a part of the team that has done this extremely is gratifying.
It’s been over a week now since we have returned from Alaska. For some reason, I had the idea in my mind that the majority of our work would be done once we were back in Omaha. Yet again, I was wrong. From the day we returned, we have been hard at work. Each day it seems that I’ve learned something new about the film making process. Here are some of the things that I’ve learned: Continue reading Still Hard at Work→
I was one of the first ones up yesterday morning, which almost never happens.
The only others up were those who were assigned to be on the interview team and Nico, who’s a video pro and always a step ahead of everybody else.
Sarah, a volunteer at the Church who was a Jesuit Volunteer last year, suddenly came into our breakfast/break room and told us that Myron, the interviewee that morning, wanted the interview team over as soon as possible. Cecilia, who we interviewed a few days ago, had also called. She was making soup, so if we needed b-roll of that, we needed to go over there immediately.
Talk about a rushed morning.
Nico was ready to go shoot b-roll and grabbed Scott, who’s quickly becoming a video pro, and the interview team started to gather equipment. I quickly felt out of place, since I wasn’t on the interview team and video isn’t my strong suit. I figured I wasn’t going in either group.
Carol, one of our faculty advisors, told me to go with Nico and Scott to see Cecilia and to observe, be present and take down notes about the b-roll the boys were shooting.
So Leah, who had just woken up, Scott, Nico and I piled into Sarah’s truck and drove to Cecilia’s. Her house isn’t big, but it is tall and skinny. When you walk in, you take off your muddy boots. You walk up a flight of stairs to her living room and kitchen.
When we got there, she had reindeer meat boiling in a pot of water. She added onions and later carrots, kale, noodles, parsley and basil. She had run out of tomatoes, so she instead put in a little ketchup. (I tried the soup later that morning, and yes, the reindeer meat was delicious!)
She showed us how she stirs, always in a clockwise motion, following the sun. She “follows the sun whatever [she does],” even when she purifies her house.
Next she showed us a little bowl of burned ayuk, or tundra tea leaves. These are tiny leaves you can pick out of the tundra. They smell fantastic and you can brew them to make tea. Cecilia burns them and and purifies her house from east to west (again, following the sun) once or twice a month.
When explaining why she purifies her house, she says that everybody leaves something behind in her house or wherever they go. It’s either positive or negative energy, like feelings of anxiety or excitement. Purifying her house removes all of that energy.
She must pick an awful lot of ayuk, because she also picks them for the Catholic Church. She has for the past two years. The Church uses the burnt tundra leaves as incense.
As Cecilia cut the different ingredients to put in her soup, she cut them using her ulu, which is a knife that is shaped like a wide “u.” She told us that when a woman gets married, she is given three things: a ulu, a traditional stirring spoon made of wood and a sewing kit complete with scissors, a smaller ulu, a thimble and needles.
While the soup was cooking on the stove, she proceeded to pull out her traditional Yup’ik mukluks (boots made out of seal and otter with waterproof stitching) and parkas. The four of us had lots of fun trying on the parkas. She told us her mother made the mukluks but she made the parkas.
Even though I didn’t really need to go to Cecilia’s because everything that happened was caught on camera, I was happy I got to go and learn a little more about the Yup’ik culture. I felt like I was at my grandma’s house, but instead of hearing about my family, I heard all sorts of traditions and history from another culture.
She told us that every Christmas her and her siblings would receive new mukluks and kuspuks (hooded overshirts with pockets; each group has a different pattern and style of kuspuks).
I hope that moment, when we laughed as we tried on the parkas and examined the mukluks, reminded her of past Christmases.
One of the phrases that accompanies this trip is “blessed to be a witness,” and these last few days has showed me what that truly means.
I’ve felt unbelievably blessed these past few days to experience the things I have, to hear stories, reflect on what I have heard, and hang out with some of Creighton’s coolest.
On Wednesday, we had the privilege to experience a full-day workshop on cultural trauma, which is experienced by many natives in the area. Rose Dominic is in charge of a program that helps natives in the healing process after experiencing trauma, and she hosted us in her home.
She told 20 strangers the story of her life and stories about the trauma her family has experienced: her grandpa being separated from her grandma, her uncles being taken out of their homes to attend boarding school, only to come back not being able to interact with family members or fit in with the culture.
She also told us stories about the trauma experienced in her own life and in her brothers and sisters’ lives. She and her older siblings were taught the Yup’ik language when they were young. Most of her older siblings went to boarding school, but she did not. Although she was not in boarding school, every time she spoke a word of Yup’ik in school she was slapped on the wrist by a nun. She experienced all of this at the age of five.
As she’s telling these stories, you can see her depth of sadness and hurt. She started to talk about sexual abuse experienced by her siblings and the alcohol abuse that has affected many of her family members, because it’s the only way they can pretend the trauma hasn’t touched them.
On Thursday, we talked to a Yup’ik elder named Cecilia, who also attended boarding school and further reinforced the idea that the sense of Yup’ik identity and culture was extremely discouraged in her early years.
This topic of boarding school and the discouragement of showing pride in culture is a topic that has interested me since day one. The Catholic missionaries and Jesuits are often mentioned with these topics, which is probably why I find them interesting. It’s hard for me as a Catholic to imagine someone who shares my faith to do such a horrible thing as separating children from their families, but I have to wonder if at the moment they thought they were doing what was best for the people.
The government is rarely mentioned but is still pertinent in the discussion. The United States at one time had a native population of 40 million. That number has now dropped to 50,000. Read that again: 40 million to 50,000. It could be called a genocide or a holocaust. We don’t like to think of the United States being associated negatively with the words “genocide” or “holocaust,” but in reality, those two topics are and should be associated with each other. But we don’t learn about it, because we’re never the bad guys in our history books. We could never admit that.
A lot of this talk is hard to hear, but the people on this trip are great people to discuss and talk to about the topics we hear all day.
We all have different talents. Some of us shoot video extremely well, others of us do not. I’ve grown fond of the group that struggles shooting video because, well, I can’t shoot great video no matter how much I want to.
On Thursday, a group of us went out to shoot B-roll, and a number of us were those that have had very little video experience. I was paired with Claudia (she’s great and you should check out her blog!) and John, one of our faculty advisors, pretty much had to talk us through our first couple of shots. We later joined up with Erin and Catherine and John assigned us to shoot a gas tank. It’s a stationary object, so it’s not too difficult to shoot. We shot it from several different angles, gaining more confidence on the cameras.
By this point, it’s pretty much decided who’s on the video team. Yesterday the video team got to go on boats and shoot fish camps while a group of six of us stayed home. We call ourselves the C-team. We got the opportunity to ride kayaks on a pretty stream, which turned into a nightmare on the way back, paddling upstream against the wind. The story is too good not to tell in person, so hit me up when I return.
For now, just picture my physically-inept self struggling to paddle for 40 minutes. That’ll give you a few laughs.