A Playful Bear Cub

The young bear clowned around outside my tent, keeping one eye on me to see if I was paying attention. He kept me company for over a weeks
The young bear clowned around outside my tent, keeping one eye on me to see if I was paying attention. He kept me company for over a weeks.

My first visit to South Frazer on Kodiak Island was in late August. Although it was quiet and deserted, evidence of the summer’s activities could be seen everywhere. The grass lay trampled and dotted with bear scat. Piles of rotting salmon lined the riverbanks below the waterfall.

I set up my tent by the lake, just north of the outlet. The fishing was great, and I lived like a king on freshly caught trout.

Waking early one morning, I opened the tent flap to find a young bear watching me from a few yards away. He studied me carefully. Then, after a minute or two, began rolling around in the grass, turning somersaults, and playing with his back paws, keeping an eye on me the whole time. He seemed to want to play … with me! Is it possible to play with a 300-pound bear cub?

The cub had dark fur, like most males. About 20 yards away, there was another cub, this one lighter in color, probably the sister of the cub near my tent. Sows, ready to mate again, usually abandon their cubs during their third summer. Left alone, not really knowing how to act, the cubs are most vulnerable. Bears are very social animals, and abandoned cubs often seek the company and security of other creatures, even humans. I’d been “adopted” before by cubs on Kodiak. While a great honor, it’s not entirely without risk.

I had plenty of opportunities to film and photograph the playful cub that stayed near me the whole time I was there. When I went down to the lake, he followed me, and when I went to bed, he laid down just outside my tent. His sister, the lighter bear cub, kept her distance.

Since then, I’ve returned to South Frazer many times and have often wondered what happened to my little friend. Maybe he is one of the giant bears that roam the mountaintops. Hopefully, he’s learned to be a little more cautious and keep his distance from dangerous humans.

(Excerpt from “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear”. The book can be purchased from Camera Q )

Don’t miss our first ”Kodiak Scandinavian Film and Culture and Festival” on Kodiak, Alaska, November 6-12, 2017. See Camera Q for more information.

Kodiak, Alaska

Kodiak, Alaska

Alaska! What is it about this great, unspoiled wilderness that is so alluring to some people? It is a destination that often requires a challenging and costly journey, with accommodations lacking creature comforts like hot water and dry socks, swarming with mosquitoes and other bloodthirsty critters, and completely cut off from communication with the outside world. Why are we willing to go to great expense and difficulty for the opportunity to abstain from comforts we strived for generations to obtain? Is it a longing for a simpler life, a desire to escape from city noises, smog-laden air and bumper-to-bumper traffic or simply a challenge to see how much we can handle? I would like to take you on an exciting adventure to the Kodiak islands in the Gulf of Alaska, a place laden with history and hidden secrets.

It’s a little known fact that most of the natives on the island are descendants of a group of Scandinavian men who arrived on Kodiak about 100 years ago, married Sugpiaq women, and raised large families. This explains why so many of the natives have names like Olson, Gustavson, Haakanson and Svenson. With its high mountains, clothed in emerald green and cut through with deep blue fjords, Kodiak has many similarities to the Scandinavian Peninsula.

I first came to Kodiak more than 25 years ago to film the Kodiak bear, the largest land carnivore on earth, but I found the islands so intriguing that I have returned year after year. For a documentary filmmaker, there is a never-ending source of inspiration in the dramatic landscapes, unique wildlife, and rich cultural history.  I would like to share some of my adventures in the wilderness, my experiences with the great bear, and my encounters with history through sunken ships and archeological digs.  I found a multitude of film projects on Kodiak, and I also developed friendships that will last a lifetime. Every time I return to Kodiak it feels like I’ve come home.

(Excerpt from “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear”. The book can be purchased from Camera Q )

Don’t miss our first ”Kodiak Scandinavian Film and Culture and Festival” on Kodiak, Alaska, November 6-12, 2017. See Camera Q for more information.

The Path to Ginde Beret

3 men in Ginde Beret
Three men welcomed us on the path to Ginde Beret.

I wanted to see the places in Africa that Dr. Tom Coleman spoke about so often, and in the spring of 2016 I booked a trip to Ethiopia. In Addis Ababa I met my translator and chauffer. We had a lot of places to see so we left the city early the next morning. Leaving Addis Ababa, we drove west for about an hour and then turned north, up through the mountains and a beautiful forest. The air was crisp and sweet and the forest was brimming with wildlife. At first the gravel road was wide and even, but it gradually became worse. It was about 120 km across the mountain but, with big rocks and large holes in the road, it took us several hours before we came to the small village of Kachise.

Our goal was to get to Ginde Beret, where Dr. Coleman had worked most of his time in Ethiopia. From Kachise the best route was to walk down a steep footpath to the valley below. There was, my chauffer told me, a road, but it went way out of the way and wasn’t at all in as “good” condition as the road we had just come by, so the decision was easy. I wondered if anyone in the village remembered Dr. Tom Coleman and his family who had lived there during the 1960’s and 70’s.

We arrived in Kachise before dark and checked into the hotel. Well, they called it a hotel; it was really not more than a shed. The toilet was a hole in the ground and there was no running water. The room we were givien was small and dirty and the mattress was lumpy and hard. I pulled out my travel sheets and crawled into bed. We needed to get an early start in the morning.

We were up at sunrise, ate a quick breakfast, a couple of eggs and tea, before beginning our trek through back allies and out to the edge of the cliff where the serpentine path wriggled down the ravine. We stood for a moment on the edge and looked down at the little village of Ginde Beret far below. A great surprise was waiting for us down there. No one has yet forgotten the miracle doctor, Tom Coleman, who saved the lives of thousands of suffering people.

We were four people in our group when we began walking down the trail, myself, my friend, Stefan Jansson from Sweden, our translator and a guide. But within minutes we were joined by more and more people who offered to carry our equipment and camera bags. I don’t know where they all came from; they seemed to appear out of nowhere. Our little troop was transformed into a caravan with people all eager to help. The path was steep with large rocks strewn here and there. Some portions had been repaired with large stone steps that made it easier to step safely. Tall trees lined the path giving us shelter from the sun. Baboons and other wildlife wandered nearby, watching us curiously.

Coming down into the valley we met people on their way up the path to Kachise. Many people from Ginde Beret climb the steep path daily to go to school, work or shopping. Suddenly there were three men standing on the path in front of us. As we came nearer I noticed that they were missing fingers and their faces had been badly marred by leprosy. Without hesitating they reached out, one after the other, to shake our hands in welcome. Their fingerless hands felt soft in mine, but it was a peculiar sensation. It was the first real encounter with a leper.

When asked if they had ever heard of Dr. Tom Coleman, they all began talking at once. Dr. Coleman! It had been 50 years since they last met him, but Dr. Coleman had saved their lives. I realized that many people in Ginde Beret indeed remembered the Colemans. They asked, “Is he coming back soon? Are you one of his children?” I explained that I was a good friend of Dr. Coleman and that I wanted to film in the village and show it to Dr. Coleman. We spent a whole day in the village and they showed us all the places where the Coleman family had lived and worked, and where the children, Judy and Bill, had played. A visit from a friend of the Coleman’s was cause for a celebration. I felt humbled by the reception we received in Ginde Beret and it gave me a greater understanding of the impact Dr. Tom and Elaine Coleman had made in Africa between 1956 and 2004. The name Coleman is spoken with great respect in Ginde Beret. It represents people who sacrificed their own comfort and prosperity to save the lives of thousands of suffering people.

Don’t miss the premiere of the film and the chance to meet the Coleman family. April 22 in Cambridge, MN. Tickets available online or at the door. More information at cameraQ.com

I Think There will be a Lot of Light in Heaven

Dr. Tom and Elaine Coleman
Dr. and Elaine Coleman. In the background the sun shines down on Ginde Beret, Ethiopia

I have met many fascinating people while working around the world with various cultures and tribes – people who are amazing role models and have performed great feats without demanding compensation or special privileges. One of these impressive people is Dr. Tom Coleman from Cambridge, Minnesota.

I first met Dr. Coleman when I was working on the film series, “Pretty Much 100% Scandinavian” interviewing hundreds of people all around the Midwest. Tom is a cheerful Swedish-American who always has a funny story to tell, usually with some connection to his forefathers’ homeland, Sweden. Growing up, Tom spoke three languages in his home, Swedish, English and the Orsa dialect. As far as we know, Tom is the last living American in the US who speaks the Orsa dialect. That makes him a little sad. Soon 95 years old, on April 24th, he misses the friends he was once able to converse with in “Orsamål.” But as soon as we get together we speak Swedish, Tom’s second-favorite language.

Tom’s grandfather left Orsa, Sweden on May 1, 1873, together with 100 other young people. They travelled via Gothenburg to America. “A lot of people were crying,” Tom’s grandfather told him, “because they knew they would never see each other again.”

I filmed and interviewed Tom Coleman several times and he told me stories of his Swedish grandparents. His grandfather’s name was actually Larsson, but he had heard that the name would cause problems in the US since there were many Larssons in the area where he planned to settle. It would be confusing and he might not get his mail. On the journey to America he had to wait a couple days in Liverpool for the next ship. Wandering the streets he pondered on what name he should choose when he came to America. He passed a large brick building with a sign that said, Coleman & Co. “Coleman”, he thought, “that is a good name for Americans.”

Several times while we were filming Tom asked me if I couldn’t use some of his pictures from Ethiopia in the film series “Pretty Much 100% Scandinavian”, but each time I explained that I didn’t think they were fitting for a film about Scandinavians in Minnesota. He showed me many pictures from Africa of people with terrible injuries and horrible deformities. At that time I didn’t really understand the enormous contribution Tom and Elaine had made among the poorest people of Africa, but every time I was in Minnesota I’d run into Tom or hear about him through someone else. I began to realize that the stories of the Coleman Family’s life in Africa, and the work Tom and Elaine had done for so many years, was a story of sacrifice and boundless love. Without them, many people in that foreign land would have had no medical aide at all. The first clinic where Tom and Elaine worked was a wooden shed about the size of a small garage. People came by the hundreds with leprosy, intestinal diseases, gigantic tumors, cancer, gunshot wounds, and sometimes with a spear or an arrow through their bodies.

Why do people like Tom and Elaine sacrifice such a large portion of their lives to helping others? Of course, it is because they have a great amount of love for people, but for Tom and Elaine, it was also because of a deep faith in a God who loves everyone equally. Tom, whose 95th birthday is in April, recently had a dream. In the dream three children came running from a nearby playground to greet him. Laughing and jumping they called, “We have been waiting for you Grandpa!” Tom recognized the children who had all died very young years ago in Ethiopia. “I think,” he told me, “that there is going to be a lot of light and enormous joy in heaven.” That is the hope that has given him the strength to bear the many difficulties involved in working with poor people in Africa.

Next week we’ll visit the village in Africa that Tom and his family call ”home.”

Don’t miss the premiere of “The Tom Coleman Story” on April 22nd. Tickets available online or at the door. More information at cameraQ.com

A Terrorist on my Flight

Part of airplane wing over Alaskan coastline
From my airplane window

(Continued from last week)

When he reached the final security checkpoint the guard took one glance at his passport and let him pass. “Why doesn’t he stop him?” I wondered anxiously. Just ahead of me in line stood an elderly woman, probably someone’s grandmother. The guard pointed first at her and then at me and explained that we had been randomly chosen to go through a thorough search, as if the earlier security checks had not been thorough enough. After 15 minutes of thorough examination, I was allowed to put on my shoes and belt, and to repack everything that had been torn out of my carry-on luggage.

Entering the plane I contemplated the absurdness of being force to go through these humiliating searches at every gate, over and over again. Why should I, a father of five with my pale Scandinavian complexion, be suspected of being involved in any devilish terrorist plot? And the old lady who had stood in front of me at the control table, surely she wouldn’t hurt a fly! Nothing seemed to make sense anymore.

When I finally reached my seat and placed my hand baggage on the chair, our eyes met for the first time. The suspicious looking, young, Arab man, raised his eyes for a split second to look at me from his seat next to mine. “This can’t be happening” I thought. I stowed my bag, took my seat, and as calmly as I could said, “Hi, How are you?”

He mumbled something in return but did not seem to be very sociable. I tried to think of something intelligent to say to get a conversation going but came up blank. Instead I reached for the flight magazine in the pocket in front of me and opened to an article about the events of September 11th. Coincidence?

I glanced at the man next to me. He was holding several small, handwritten notes in his hand, all written in Arabic. He seemed to be trying to conceal them from me while he read them, which only made me more suspicious. I’m sure I was not the only one on the plane who had noticed the nervous, young man. But what could I say to him? He was such a neat, clean cut, well-dressed young man.

The plane began rolling and we soon took off towards Amsterdam. Soon the smell of food filled the cabin, lunch was being served. It actually smelled good, even if I wasn’t really hungry. Without really thinking I turned to the young man and said, ”Food will taste good, I’m starving!” He looked at me and nodded. Our food was served and we ate in silence, the conversation I had hope for never got off the ground.

I noticed that he didn’t drink the wine that was served, so I assumed he was a devout Muslim. As we finished our meal, and the stewardess removed the trays, I turned to him again and mentioned that the food had tasted good. He nodded his agreement.

There I was, sitting next to a terrible terrorist who was most certainly going to blow up the plane. If that was the case I at least wanted to know why. I needed to get him talking. I asked him, “Where are you going?” A simple question; not too intrusive. He looked at me and answered without hesitation, “I’m on my way home to Abu Dhabi to see my parents.” “Abu Dhabi!” I exclaimed, “I have been there many times on my way from Europe to Asia!” He smiled at me and his nervousness seemed to evaporate. We began talking about his homeland, the desert and the ocean.

He told me he was studying at the University of Washington in Seattle. But he also had a hobby. “Do you like pocket watches?” he asked as he stood up. He brought out a beautiful leather bag. “I buy these in the US for a few bucks, and sell them in Abu Dhabi for around $1000!” He brought out one pocket watch after the other, all wrapped in toilet paper, to show me. They were all from the 1800’s. “You see,” he explained “American’s only like new things. I buy old watches, pay a small price, and sell them for a good profit.” He brought out an unusually small pocket watch, carefully wrapped in paper. “This is from the mid-1800’s. I will keep this one for myself.”

He collected many items and antiques from the US. This time he was also bringing a Ford Model-T that his father had ordered for the museum he owned in Abu Dhabi. We had a lot to talk about and the trip over the Atlantic passed quickly.

When we parted in Amsterdam I was amazed at how quickly my fear and suspicions were dispelled by a little conversation. It is not at all surprising that he was nervous at the airport in Seattle, nor was my reaction surprising. We were both victims of the events of that dreadful morning of September 11, 2001. The world may never be the same again. But I learned something on that trip to Amsterdam. Communication may be our primary weapon for dispelling fear and misunderstanding between people. While evil may now have a face and a profile, not everyone who fits that profile is evil. Something to remember as we live and travel in this multicultural world, communication is more important today than it ever was.

It will never be the same again, will it?

Statue of Liberty with NYC and Twin Towers in background.
New York City, 1986

For those of us who travel regularly, whether it is for business or for pleasure, the tragic events of September 11th has made a lasting impact on our lives. Not only did thousands of people lose their lives that day, the extent of evil in human beings reached a totally new dimension. And that evil was given a new face and a new profile, which, unfortunately, sometimes even affects the innocent.

Last year in September, just days after the airlines resumed flying again, I was en route from Anchorage to Colorado Springs. It was not a direct flight; I would have to transfer in Portland and again in Phoenix. I don’t think that I have ever seen an airport more deserted and desolate than that morning in September when I arrived at Anchorage International Airport.

Check-in went surprisingly easy. I had expected much more difficulty with security controls. Soon I was comfortably seated on the plane with only a few other brave souls as co-passengers. Just before take-off two large, well-built men came on board and made their way to their seats at the back of the plane. “It’s obvious who they are,” I thought, “certainly not tourists!” The same thing happened on the flight from Portland to Phoenix, two large, well-built men sat at the rear of the plane. On the final leg of my journey, from Phoenix to Colorado Springs, it happened again. Two large, well-built men entered and sat down at the rear of the plane.

Just before take-off, the silence aboard was broken by the crackling of the speaker and the captain began to speak, “Well, flying has never been safer,” he assured us. “Just take a look at the stocky gentlemen sitting way in the back,” he chuckled, “I don’t think any terrorist would want to pick a fight with them!” Since then air marshals have become more difficult to detect. Either they have been given other assignments or they have learned to blend in with the passengers.

Two months later, in November 2001, I was again en route from Anchorage, this time to Amsterdam. I was changing planes in Seattle. Air travel had recovered since September and the airport was once again full of people. Among thousands of hurried passengers I spotted a person coming toward me in the corridor. It was a young man, very well dressed, with olive skin and dark hair. There was no way that he could hide his Arab background. He could have stepped right off the covers of many of the magazines we saw the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks in September. He was the epitome of what was now profiled as the face of evil, a death machine, or a terrorist.

But it wasn’t so much his appearance as his actions that alarmed me. He seemed nervous, eyes glued to the floor, never looking at anyone. As he passed I breathed a sigh of relief that I was not on the same flight as that suspicious character. I continued, somewhat relieved but surprised that one person among thousands of people in this crowded airport could make such an impression on me.

Well, it didn’t matter anymore, I had reached my gate and soon the experience would be forgotten. But the sign above the gate showed that there had been a change in plans. My flight would depart from a different gate. “No problem,” I thought, “I have plenty of time.”

I soon reached the new gate, and there he was again, the young Arab man, looking at least as nervous as before and just a few people ahead of me in line. “This can’t be true!” I mumbled to myself, “What are the chances of this happening? Maybe one in a million.” What do you do if you end up on the same flight as a suspected terrorist?

I’ll tell you what I did next week!

 

To be Good at Filming…

Editing class in Vedum, Sweden
Editing class in Vedum. Everyone works with their own material to produce an exciting film.

After selling my first film to Swedish Television when I was a teenager, I purchased professional equipment and began to study the techniques of filming with a goal of becoming a good documentary/wildlife filmmaker. I was soon hired to work with Nils Dahlbeck at Swedish Television in Gothenburg. Having retired from his job as CEO of television, Nils had begun producing his own films for a nature program called, “Back to Nature with Dahlbeck.” I became acquainted with many people working at television. One later became my mentor, helping me with several of my early productions. One thing he often told me was, ”To be good at filming you must first learn to edit.”

Many of the films we see on YouTube or other Internet channels could, with a little editing, be fantastic documentaries. My mentor was correct when he said that a good film starts in the editing room. Through our organisation, Naturfilmarna – Swedish Wildlife Filmmakers, we have held several classes in filming and editing. Not only do our students learn to produce a better film, they are inspired and realise that editing is exciting and fun. They often become so engrossed in their new skills that they work late into the night. If you enjoy filming, but consider editing a chore, my advice is that you learn the secrets of editing and you’ll soon discover new possibilities for your film.

I’m a little late getting this blog published this week because I, and several of my colleagues from Naturfilmarna, have been at The Swedish Outdoor Show (Vildmarksmässan) where I was asked to hold a film school. Twice a day I lectured on why someone becomes a wildlife filmmaker and about some of my adventures in filming. I shared a little about working with the Kodiak bear in Alaska, the Ceylon elephants on Sri Lanka, and about our latest project, Himba – the Red People. One of the most important aspects of my job is presenting my work to an audience. Standing in front of a group of people I can almost feel their excitement as they experience the adventure through my words, and a responsive audience fuels me to tell my story with even greater enthusiasm. This weekend at The Swedish Outdoor Show we met lots of interested and interesting people who wanted to know more about wildlife filmmaking.

Some of the people who come to the Outdoor Show are a bit “unusual” with stories of their own. Perhaps you need to be a little eccentric to venture out into the great unknown, feeling comfortable in unusual circumstances that lead to incredible adventures. One of those people who came by to talk to me was Marcus Aspsjö, the son of good friends of ours. A young adventurer I’ve known since the day he was born. His next adventure this summer will be to paddle the Yukon River from Whitehorse, Canada till the Bering Sea on a SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard). Since I’ve been working in Alaska for over 30 years we had a lot to talk about. One of the things we talked about was safety, something that, as a role model, Marcus needs to be vigilant about. My advice was to be prepared for the unexpected. Most people think bears are the greatest danger while traveling through Canada’s and Alaska’s wilderness, but most injuries are caused by mistakes made when your not paying attention. Then the bear, with all his power, is the least of your problems. Follow Marcus at https://www.facebook.com/adventurecalling/

Home again, I head back into the studio for the final editing of our next film, “The Tom Coleman Story.” Next week I’ll tell you a little about this remarkable life lived in the service of others.

My Dear Elsa – The Movie is Finished

Elsa Lundh and Stefan Quinth
I often visited Elsa at the senior care facility where she lived out her last years, bringing the fan mail she received from viewers all over Scandinavia.

In February 2006, we held a three-day premiere of the film “My Dear Elsa.” Elsa hadn’t seen the film prior to the premiere and came to the theater a little nervous but very excited. Throughout the first showing Elsa laughed and commented loudly, narrating along with the film. When it was over Elsa called out loud and clear, ”Now I have finally been vindicated!”

When the film later aired on Swedish Television (SVT), Elsa became an over-night sensation! The buyer for SVT told us that “My Dear Elsa” received the most re-run requests of any documentary they had ever had. It was an enormous boost for Elsa’s self-esteem.

In 2007 Elsa contracted pneumonia. That fall and the following spring her conditioned improved slowly and I visited her and filmed her several times at the senior home where she was living. We never divulged Elsa’s address so any mail from her television audience was sent to us and every time I visited her I brought the fan mail that flowed in from all over Scandinavia. Many of those who had seen the film wrote to thank and encourage Elsa. One young girl wrote, “When I grow up I want to be just as happy and sweet, and be an inspiration to others just like you are.”

Elsa read the letters out loud for me, laughing and thoroughly enjoying all the attention she received from so many people. Those letters made her so happy. She often told me, “Stefan, I feel like a queen. Despite all the horrible things I’ve been through, I wouldn’t want to change places with anyone.”

I think that is the best payment I’ve ever received for a film – the satisfaction of doing something good, of creating a documentary that transformed a vulnerable, degraded human being, who had grown up destitute and misunderstood, and raise her up to be a queen. This tiny woman, debilitated from treatments and medical experiments, finally gained respect and the realization that she was, indeed, valued.

I asked Elsa, during one of my visits in 2008, if I could get her anything. Without hesitating she said that she wanted a box of After Eight chocolates. I promised to get it for her, but time flew by and I was away a lot that spring. We were going to be working in the USA all summer and the day before we were supposed to leave I suddenly remembered my promise. Elsa never forgot a promise, so I knew I had to rush out and buy a box of chocolates and go and visit her.

When my wife, LaVonne, and I entered Elsa’s room that evening she was already in bed, but her eyes lit up with joy when she saw us. She didn’t care about the chocolates I placed on her bedside table. Her breathing was labored but she spoke loudly and clearly between breaths. It was the first time she didn’t assure me that if she could only start exercising again she would soon be on her feet. She knew, and I could see, that this was probably our last visit together.

We sat by her bedside and listened. Mostly she spoke of the happiness she had experienced the last few years because of the film about her life. She didn’t mention it, but I understood she was saying a loving farewell. We sat with Elsa until late that evening. She didn’t want us to go, but we had an early flight to catch in the morning so we finally had to say good-bye to our friend, Elsa.

The next morning, just minutes before we got in the car to drive to the airport, the phone rang. It was one of the nurses from the senior care unit in Vårgårda. She said, “I thought you would like to know that Elsa left us this morning, you were such dear friends.”

The movie “My Dear Elsa” tells her story from degradation to triumph. See it on DVD and Vimeo .

Filming Elsa

Elsa Lundh outside Västra Marks mental hospital in Örebro, Sweden.
Elsa Lundh outside of Västra Marks mental hospital in Örebro where she was committed when she was 17 years old.

I had many unforgettable moments with Elsa during the five years we were filming the story of her life. One Sunday, in the summer of 2003, we drove to Halmstad on the southwest coast of Sweden to visit one of the institutions where she was confined for two years in the 1930’s. Still in use, it is now a home for developmentally challenged men who, during the day, had jobs in the area. I had already contacted the home and they were waiting for us. Elsa was greeted like a celebrity. They had prepared a meal and coffee and Elsa enjoyed herself immensely as she told them about life in the institution during the 30’s. The personnel were fascinated by her memories and her stories.

We left the institution in Halmstad in the afternoon and began the drive home to Vårgårda, but Elsa wasn’t quite ready to end the excursion. When we had come about half way and were nearing the city of Borås, Elsa asked, “Can’t we stop for dinner?” When Elsa said “dinner” she usually meant coffee and a sweet roll. It was five minutes to six and I knew that most of the cafés closed at six. It was going to be tight. I stopped outside a café and rushed in to see if they would stay open a little longer for Elsa. The girl behind the counter wasn’t thrilled but said if we hurried, she would serve us.

I ran back to the car to get Elsa and escort her into the café as quickly as possible. Elsa walked severely stooped with her face to the ground and commented about everything she saw. If we passed a flower she had to stop and talk to it for awhile, so we didn’t move very fast. I think we walked through the doors right at six o’clock. We placed our order with the girl at the counter and then sat down at a nearby table.

There were about 15 other people in the café who were finishing up their coffees. The girl who had taken our order soon arrived at our table carrying our coffee and rolls on a tray. As she was laying out the items on the table, Elsa began to tell her life story. The waitress looked slightly uncomfortable and I was terribly embarrassed. I thought to myself, “I hope they don’t think that she is my mother. Please, Elsa, stop!”

But Elsa didn’t stop; she continued to tell her story and before long the atmosphere in the café seemed to change. It was 6:30 and Elsa was still telling her story when I looked up. The waitress was still standing there and all the other people in the café were now standing around our table listening intently.

When I realized how moved those people were by Elsa’s amazing but tragic story, I was ashamed of my earlier embarrassment over Elsa’s eagerness to talk to strangers in a café. Instead, I sat up straight, proud to be Elsa’s friend, and listened along with the others. At 7 o’clock Elsa paused to take a breath and I grabbed the chance to say, “Maybe we should be getting home now, Elsa?”

Elsa agreed and we all left the café in silence. I am sure that no one listening that afternoon in Borås will ever forget my friend, Elsa.

Elsa and I visited all of the institutions where she had been incarcerated for over 30 years. I also went with her to birthday parties, shopping and to cafés, filming everything she did. Once, it nearly ended in a catastrophe.

Elsa had purchased a small summer cottage where she occasionally stayed for a couple of days. It was located deep in the forest and she didn’t have a telephone or other conveniences. One day she asked me if I could drive her out to her cottage and then come and pick her up the next day. Sure, no problem! We drove out to the cottage and I had a cup of coffee with her before I went home. Elsa was going to spend the night. But, to my eternal shame, I forgot about Elsa! A couple of days later I was at a party in the evening when someone asked, ”How’s the film about Elsa going?” Devastated, I realized that Elsa was still out there, alone in the forest. I left the party, jumped into my car and raced out to the cottage.

It was less than a half hour’s drive, but during that time strange thoughts flooded my mind. What if Elsa was lying dead in the cottage? What if she tried to walk home and had collapsed in a ditch by the side of the road? Those were anxious minutes before I reached the cottage.

I rushed inside without knocking and there was Elsa sitting by the kitchen table. She looked up and smiled. “It’s a good thing that you came now,” she said, “that was my last piece of sweet roll.” She swallowed the last sip of coffee and finished her roll. We climbed into the car and drove home. Elsa never mentioned that I forgot her out there at the cottage. She was always happy and grateful every time we were out on an adventure.

More next week about working with Elsa. The movie “My Dear Elsa” tells her story from degradation to triumph. See it on DVD and Vimeo .

Meeting Elsa

Elsa Lundh and Stefan Quinth
Elsa and I outside the little cabin where she lived with her mother after being released from the asylum.

The first time I met Elsa was just a few months after she had come home to live with her mother. I was eight years old and my brother, Peter, was ten. In Sweden children sell books and magazines before Christmas to earn money. They have one or two catalogs and go door to door and take orders from people. Peter was doing this and on a visit to our cousins who lived on a farm outside of town, he decided he should bring his catalogs and try to sell something in that area. We were encouraged to visit all the farms in the neighborhood but, they said, don’t go to the little house in the forest. The ladies who live there are so poor, they wouldn’t have any money.

It was a dark afternoon in October, late enough in the year for people to begin to think about Christmas, but I think most of them had already placed their orders with someone else. I remember that we didn’t have much luck, if fact, we didn’t get any orders at all. We were pretty discouraged and thought that if we could just sell one little magazine we would be happy.

When we had been around to all the farms without any sales, my brother decided we should visit the two old ladies anyway. So we follow the path through the woods to the little house where they lived. It was dark and a little creepy when we walked up the overgrown path between the looming spruce trees. Soon we saw the gleam of an oil lamp in one of the windows of a small cabin. When we reached the stone steps we knocked cautiously on the door. The door opened and someone peeked out. When we told her why we had come, she invited us in. She stuttered and spoke with a loud, shrill voice, which frightened us a bit, but we gathered our courage and went inside the little house.  The lady who invited us in was Elsa.

We showed her our catalogs and asked if she would like to order anything from us. Elsa asked us to come into the kitchen. (The cabin had three small rooms. Inside the door was a small hallway. On the right was the kitchen that was about 20-25 square feet. On the left, behind a thick blanket, was the bedroom.) Elsa looked through the catalogs and began to order. I think she ordered one of each of the books in the catalog. (We didn’t know that Elsa had just recently come home after 32 years in an asylum where she wasn’t allowed to own anything, not even a postcard) We were just pleased and happy that we had made a good sale on an otherwise discouraging and dark October evening.

We thanked her, put our catalogs into our little bag and were just about to leave when we heard an eerie, ghostly voice call from the bedroom, “Elsa does not want any books, she doesn’t have any money!” That spooky voice coming from behind the blanket was too much for two small boys. We burst out through the door and ran as fast as we could through the forest, not stopping until we reached the main road. There we stood for a moment to catch our breath and consider what had just happened before we slowly and dejectedly walked back to our cousins’ farm. We never told anybody about our encounter,  neither did we order any books or magazines for Elsa.

Twenty-five years later I was commissioned to produce a documentary about Vårgårda and some of the interesting people who lived there. I had a long list of names of people I was supposed to interview. Working my way through the list I called each one and arranged a meeting. One of the names on the list was Elsa Lundh. I had not had any contact with her since that day when I was eight years old. I called Elsa and asked if I could come and film an interview with her. She said that would be great and we booked a time.

On the day of the interview I went to Elsa’s apartment, which was located near the center of town. I rang the doorbell and waited. It took awhile before I heard someone moving on the other side of the door and the sound of locks being opened. (Elsa was afraid of burglars so she had installed several extra locks on her door just to be on the safe side.) After several minutes I saw the doorknob turn and the door opened a crack. The opening widened just enough for a gnarled hand to reach through, one finger pointed right at me. Then I discovered the little hunch-backed woman inside. Before I could say a word I heard Elsa’s strong, shrill voice asking, ”Where are the books I ordered?”

Elsa forgave me, thank goodness. She understood why we hadn’t returned with the books she had ordered that Christmas in 1965. She also told me that she did, in fact, have money then. She had just begun to collect her pension.

More next week about working with Elsa. The movie “My Dear Elsa” tells her story from degradation to triumph. See it on DVD and Vimeo .

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