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.
It’s a word that we learned on our very first day in Nogales. One of the Kino Border Initiative’s main goals is for groups to leave with an understanding of the complicated reality of migration. After two weeks on the border, I can’t imagine anyone leaving without complication packed in his or her baggage.
I thought I learned complication from the desert walk, our discussions with people who work on the border, Operation Streamline or the migrant’s stories, but I didn’t understand it until I got back home.
When my family asked what I learned, my mind went blank. I felt like every question, every frustration, every sign of hope was at the tip of my tongue but couldn’t escape; I had so much to say, but no way to say it.
That frustrating feeling was when I truly understood the layers of complication that migration carries. I always knew the layers were there and I uncovered even more during the trip, but to know and to understand are not the same thing.
I think this is part of Kino’s magic; they taught us as much as they could, but left the understanding for a later date.
Now that I truly understand, I am so thankful for the outlet of film.
Even though I often find myself frustrated and overwhelmed with migration’s level of complexity; knowing that there will be an epic film full of b-roll and sick edits, gives me relief.
With interviews that often lasted longer than an hour, editing the documentary down to just 25 minutes was a significant challenge. The writing team had its work cut out for them initially; scouring the transcribed interviews for quotes that beautifully summarized everything we had just learned to create a coherent narrative.
Before splitting into our groups as editors and writers, the class built a rough story outline based off Kino’s goals to humanize, accompany, and complicate the issue of immigration.
It was such a natural outline I began to think about how that framework should be used in each story we tell. For example when I talk about my little sister as someone with a disability rather than as a disabled person, I am humanizing her. Her disability is a part of who she is but it is not all that she is. In the same fashion when talking about someone who has been deported, it’s important to remember that they have inherent human dignity, which should be implicit in any retelling of their story. They have been deported but that is only one part of their history, not its entirety.
After seriously considering the idea of the humanize, accompany, and complicate framework, I realized that it’s the way all stories about people should be understood. When I was a younger my pastor put a significant emphasis on learning how to listen deeply. Listening deeply implies that the listener isn’t thinking about how they will respond to the speaker but rather the listener is genuinely engaged with the speaker’s narrative.
While the bottom line is that the general audience will get what they want out of a story, its incredibly important to build every story off this framework. Even in fictional writing, telling a tale about a person without humanizing them makes it impossible for the intended audience to reap the message. Harry Potter wouldn’t be much of a story if all we knew about him was that he was an orphan.
Although our documentary veered off this track later in the week, because it was originally built with that outline, the story accomplishes those goals. It tells a story that we as a Jesuit university can be proud of because it maintains the principle of inherent human dignity in all persons.