Telling Stories of Perseverance from Afghanistan and Kilimanjaro

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Mt. Kilimanjaro

My alma mater, the University of Missouri, is known for its School of Journalism. And the School of Journalism is known for the quality of work done by its graduates.

Two of those graduates have been featured this year in Mizzou Magazine for their international-themed documentaries, in which people courageously face the challenges before them.

Afghanistan: No One Should Be Forgotten

In the winter issue, Mo Scarpelli talks about her motivation for making documentaries. “The stories I’m interested in,” she says, “inform and provoke people to learn about something or start questioning things in their world.” It is this mindset that led her, and fellow director/producer Alexandria Bombach, to film Frame by Frame, which follows four photojournalists in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

One of those four is Massoud Hossaini, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for his photo showing the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Kabul.

When the Taliban were overthrown, taking photos became legal again. But with the withdrawal of US troops, Hossaini and others are concerned that their rights will once again be lost. “This is a big possibility that the world . . . I mean . . . forget us again,” Houssaini says in the documentary. He doesn’t believe that anyone should be forgotten:

The world now is like one body, so all the member of this body should know that one member has a pain. And they should feel this, and they should know, and they should find out.

Kilimanjaro: More than a Hike

Steve Remich, another MU alum, is the videographer and co-editor behind Life in Motion: Kilimanjaro 2014. The short documentary shows Alex D’Jamoos, a young man without legs, and others climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Their trek was sponsored by the Happy Families International Center (HFIC), a non-profit that helps disabled children in orphanages get the medical care they need.

In Mizzou Magazine‘s fall issue, Remich says his hope in the documentary is to show something larger than just a climb up Kilimanjaro:

With the video, I really wanted to tell a short story that was about more than a hike. Sure it’s physically difficult and you wonder if you can make it to the top, but the entire point of hiking the highest mountain in Africa on prosthetic legs is about the symbolism of the act. Alex said something very powerful in one of our interviews, essentially that walking—for him—is not about mobility but about being normal. That really stuck with me, and I did my best to build a story around that idea.

D’Jamoos came to the US for surgery when he was 15 and was adopted by a family in Dallas soon after. He’s now a student at the University of Texas, planning to become an international lawyer.

“Even now, it’s surreal to me that I am a UT student,” D’Jamoos tells The Alcalde, the alumni magazine of The University of Texas. “It sounds a bit crazy. You know, ‘disabled Russian orphan comes to America, goes to college, climbs Kilimanjaro?’ Well, yeah.”

(Kelsey Allen, “Frame by Frame,” Mizzou Magazine, November 11, 2014; “Life in Motion,” Mizzou Magazine, August 19, 2015; Rose Cahalan, “The Climb,” The Alcalde, Jan/Feb 2015)

[photo: “Kili 56,” by Sam Haley, used under a Creative Commons license]

When I Was Eleven . . . No One Made a Movie about Me

6878794757_82b564e1a2_mWhen I was eleven . . . no one made a movie about me.

The same cannot be said of Jiter, Goh, Siham, Giorgi, Jack, Oliver, Billy, Obey, Remya, Rika, Vandana, Priya, Dagan, Sree Kutty, Sam, Sahin, Luca, Fang, Osama, Kim, Grace, and Sharif. They are the subjects of a documentary, filmed over a period of six years by Australian Genevieve Bailey, called I Am Eleven.  The children, all (of course) eleven years old, are from India, Thailand, Morocco, France, Bulgaria, England, the US, Australia, Japan, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, China, and the Czech Republic.

When I was eleven . . . I was trying to figure out the world. And I’d guess that the words that came out of my mouth were sometimes ridiculous and sometimes profound.

Sounds like these kids.

What about when you were eleven? Let everybody know at wheniwaseleven.com.

[photo: “Aluminium Tag Bingo Number 11,” by Leo Reynolds, used under a Creative Commons license]

Roundball Diplomacy in Iran: A Documentary

Here’s another entry in the category of basketball diplomacy*. When director Till Schauder found Kevin Sheppard, a point guard from the US Virgin Islands, playing professionally in the Iranian Super League, he made him the focus of his documentary, The Iran Job. The film follows Sheppard’s season with his team, A.S. Shiraz, and his spirited interactions with the Iranian people. In particular, Sheppard forms a relationship with three women—who bravely face the cameras, remove their head coverings, and share their views about the current culture in Iran. Shauder writes:

Iran is often portrayed as a terrorist nation, a nuclear threat, and a charter member of the Axis of Evil bent on the destruction of Israel. But behind the headlines—and the aggressive rhetoric of Iran’s hard-line leaders—lies one of the most fascinating nations, as sensuous as it can be challenging, with a life-loving people. This film focuses on Iran’s people, rather than its government, and I hope it can challenge perceptions of Iran by providing an authentic perspective that may be crucial when choices are made between war and peace. It is probably safe to say that getting Iran “right” is as impossible as getting any culture “right.” Nonetheless, for their people and for ours, it should be a high priority. . . . More than a fish-out-of-water sports documentary this film focuses on social issues including women’s rights, political freedom and religious conflict, through the lens of a black American basketball player.

The Iran Job is being screened in selected US theaters, and DVDs are available at Kickstarter.

*For more examples of basketball diplomats, see my other posts on Stephon MarburyYao Ming, and Jeremy Lin.

[photo of a basketball goal in Varamin, Iran: “Retired hoop!” by Blake Amin Tabrizi, used under a Creative Commons license]

Documentary Shows Adoptees’ Journeys from China to the US to “Somewhere Between”


In the process of sharing in the story of her daughter, adopted from China, Linda Goldstein Knowlton decided to tell the story of four other girls, Chinese adoptees living in the United States. The vehicle for her storytelling is the documentary Somewhere Between. On the film’s website, Goldstein Knowlton says,

I am making this film for everyone. For the girls, so they can see their experiences in connection with each other, and for everyone who grapples with issues of race, culture, identity, and being “different.” By necessity, we must all try to comprehend the experience of being “other” in America, to see how each individual finds his or her own way in society. This film explores the emotional and psychological fallout on our daughters and our selves, and our cultural experience when stereotypes and assumptions collide.

The film follows the experiences of four young teenagers:

  • Jenna Cook, a 13 year old in New Hampshire (now a student at Yale). “As strong as she is, she breaks down discussing the word ‘abandonment’ and its effect on her life. . . . The film documents her courage and commitment to facing her past as she volunteers for summer work at the very Chinese orphanage that housed her as an infant.”
  • Haley Butler, 13 years old in Nashville, TN (currently studying at Nashville School of the Arts). While she is on a trip to China to find her birth parents, “miraculously, a man comes forward and claims her as his biological daughter, which sends Haley on a rollercoaster ride of excitement, trepidation, and self doubt until, at the end of the film, Haley discovers some surprising and shocking truths about herself and her history.”
  • Ann Boccuti, 14 years old, living in a Philadelphia, PA, suburb (now a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania). “She loves her life and has little desire to know anything about where she came from. . . . Her attitude, however, shifts when she meets other adopted girls in the CAL/Global Girls organization, and signs up for a trip to Europe with them. Once she is exposed to the innermost thoughts of other girls like her, girls who admit they have a nagging desire to find their roots, her world cracks open.”
  • Fang “Jenni” Lee, a 14-year-old in Berkely, CA (currently a student at Mt. Holyoke). “Her adopted parents divorce, and Fang must relive the ‘abandonment’ she faced as a small child. Amid this emotional turmoil, Fang travels to China and sees a little girl in a Chinese foster home, unmoving because of her cerebral palsy. Touched, Fang becomes determined to find the little girl a home.”

“This film is about these four girls,” says Goldstein Knowlton, “and the 79,562 girls growing up in America.  Right now.”

The award-winning Somewhere Between has screenings scheduled in several cities, but if there isn’t one near you, join me in waiting for the DVD. Having adopted a boy from Taiwan, I think we could learn some things from these girls. As our son grows up, he’ll be asking more and more questions, and we want to do our best to help him find the right answers.

[photo: “Bridge,” by Andrew Hefter, used under a Creative Commons license]