Category Archives: Fascinating_People

Sir, Sir!…Don’t be afraid!

Stefan Quinth holding cobra, 1982
It took awhile before I was comfortable holding a cobra in my hands, but I learned a great lesson; fear is our greatest enemy in any situation.

My first visit to Sri Lanka or Ceylon, as it is also called, was in 1980 when I was 23 years old. It was, and is, a fabulous island with amazing wildlife, scenery and history. One day, when I was sitting in my hotel room, I saw two young boys squatting by the side of the road. They didn’t seem to be local boys. They carried cloth bags and a box that they had placed on the road in front of them. Curious, I watched them for a while and discovered that they had snakes crawling out of their pockets and around their feet. Not just your garden-variety snakes, these were cobras, the snake they say kills more people than all other snakes combined!

When I was four years old my father told me, “Son, be careful in the forest and never go near the stone walls because there are snakes there.” That admonition served only to spike my interest in the animals that I was supposed to avoid. Now, when I had a chance to study the king of all snakes, I just had to go out and get a closer look and talk to the boys. They told me, in broken English, who they were and where they came from. I was impressed by the way they handled their animals. As a filmmaker, who had produced and sold a few of my first wildlife documentaries to television, the temptation was just too great. I would have to go home, get my camera and then return, as soon as possible, to Sri Lanka.

One year later I was back again and produced the first documentary about the snake people for Swedish Television. They are actually called Ahikuntake, which, in Sanskrit, means, “people who catch spear bodies,” or rather, “snake catchers.” They are nomads, traveling around the island collecting poisonous snakes from rice paddies, plantations, homes and gardens.

As the rice ripens it attracts rats and mice, and the snakes follow in their wake to feast on rodents. When it is time to harvest there are plenty of poisonous reptiles lurking in the knee-high rice. Before the reapers can step out into the paddy they call on the Ahikuntake to come and gather the snakes. When their bags are full, they’ll walk around to another field and release the snakes. That might sound strange, but if they killed the snakes, the rats and mice would destroy every harvest for years to come. The snakes, especially the cobra, are essential for the economic survival of the rice farmers.

When I returned to Sri Lanka to produce my first film about the Ahikuntake, I followed the children out to the fields to gather poisonous snakes. The children, only 8-10 years old, picked up those dangerous animals as if they were toys. It looked kind of fun and I, who had been interested in snakes since I was a small boy, also wanted to try. Understandably a bit nervous, I tried approaching the serpents from behind, but every time I got close enough to grab the least dangerous end, the snake turned around, hissed and lunged at me. After umpteen attempts that all failed, one of the children tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Sir, sir! Don’t be afraid! DON’T BE AFRAID!” These children who had been playing with snakes since before they could walk, saw nothing dangerous in their task.

You could compare those children in the field with our own children who have learned to walk on the sidewalk along a heavily trafficked street in the city. We’ve also taught them how to safely cross that same street. As long as we follow the rules, we are not particularly concerned about the cars, but one false move, a thoughtless mistake, could be catastrophic. The same applies in the field and since snakes can also sense or smell fear, it is important to remain calm when working with poisonous snakes.

The children in the rice field taught me an important lesson that day. “Sir, don’t be afraid!” Fear is, in itself, the most dangerous thing we carry with us wherever we go. Fear causes us to make foolish decisions, whether it is when we confront a bear in the forest or our boss when we are asking for a raise. It took awhile before I was comfortable holding a cobra in my hands, but I learned a great lesson; fear is our greatest enemy in any situation.

Sri Lanka – My first visit

Two Ahikuntaka boys
Two young boys squatting by the little gravel road. (Photo: Per Wester)

My teacher in elementary school had a sister living on the island of Ceylon in the Indian Ocean, off the southern tip of India. Sometimes her sister sent letters. It was a special treat when our teacher read the letters out loud for the class. While she was reading, the envelope was passed around the class so that we could see the beautiful stamps with exotic animals and flowers that were glued in the corner. From the letters came exciting stories about elephants, jungles, endless beaches and about tea that grew on bushes. For me, Ceylon was a country sprung from the pages of storybooks.

In November-December, 1980, when I was 23 years old, I was offered the opportunity to travel to Ceylon. By that time the country had officially reverted to its original name, Sri Lanka, which means “the shining or glimmering island.” When I arrived on Sri Lanka the first time, the International airport, located just north of the capital, Colombo, was only a small, inconspicuous building surrounded by palm trees that seemed to bow down as the plane came in for a landing. When the doors of the plane opened and I took my first steps down the stairs out into a tropical world it felt like walking into a soft wall of warm, moist air – a totally new experience for me.

All the stories my teacher had read from her sister’s letter came to life, but the sound of the waves, the intense song of the tropical birds and the smell of the flowers and burning grass in the warm, humid air was something that could not be portrayed on paper. Sri Lanka was so much more. Still, the colorful stories springing from those letters telling about a tropical island, far off in the great big world, had left an indelible impression on me as a child.

My first encounter with the people and sights of Sri Lanka had been so intense. Every day was full of new experiences. I had walked on warm, empty beaches, seen elephants and met people who welcomed me as a friend. It was impossible not to fall in love with this tropical paradise. There was only one thing missing on my list of things to experience, and that was to see a cobra. But one morning, just before Christmas, 1980, looking out of the window of my bungalow, I saw two young boys squatting by the little gravel road. At first I paid them little heed, but when I discovered that the boy’s cloth bags were full of snakes I was intrigued. I went right out to talk to the boys and was able to become acquainted with their extraordinary pets. Finally, I was able to hold a real-live cobra! Little did I know, meeting those young boys would lead to a deep, life-long friendship with an exciting culture.

That first visit to Sri Lanka was followed by many more and over the years my teacher’s sister, Inga-Lisa Fairweather, who has lived on Sri Lanka for many decades, became a very close friend. I have returned to the island almost once a year since 1980. It’s fascinating how the stories we’ve heard as a child can have a lasting influence on our lives. I never dreamt that Sri Lanka, my childhood paradise, would one day be like a second home to me. Throughout the years I have made some extended visits and produced many films about the people, nature and animals on the island.

Sri Lanka – A Paradise to Return To

LaVonne and a Blue Whale
Swimming with a Blue Whale – We were only yards away!

There are some countries in the world that have that little extra something, that appeal that draws you back like a super magnet. Sri Lanka is one of the countries I find difficult to be away from for very long. They have everything – jungles, wild animals, history, fascinating people, long beaches and exciting underwater scenery. It’s never hard for me, as a filmmaker, to find a story on this paradise island.

My latest trip, in March-April, was my 30th visit to Sri Lanka. I have often been there over extended periods, maybe 2-4 months at a time, working on various film projects. My first visit to this paradise island was in 1980. Sri Lanka was, at that time, a somewhat primitive country with rough, narrow roads and people doing hard labor with simple tools. A country not yet industrialized but still maintaining the unique culture of a fading colonial era.

Now, in 2017, Sri Lanka is a modern country with well-developed roads and transportation. People live much like we do in Europe, for better or for worse. For me, one of the more disturbing “modernizations” is the ever-present television that can now be found even in the simplest homes in rural Sri Lanka. People have succumbed to the same social paralysis that affected us in the 1960’s, staring at a moving picture on the screen rather than visiting and talking with each other. Even if they don’t have time to sit down and watch, the television is left on as some sort of artificial companion or status symbol. Of course, television, correctly used, can be a great source of entertainment and information.

This spring I and my wife and colleague, LaVonne, were in Sri Lanka to film the final scenes for our new film, a story about the Ahikuntaka people, and to gather more material for our new book about Sri Lanka. First we visited Kudagama, a small village about 30 minutes drive south of Anuradhapura. When I came to Kudagama the first time to film in 1982, the village was little more than a cluster of huts made from mud, sticks and leaves. Most alarming, however, was the obvious alcohol problems in the village. Virtually 100% of the people from the age of 10 years old were alcoholics, drinking large quantities of the cheapest alcohol called Kasippu. Terrible violence and riots broke out daily. I think it could best be described as “Hell on Earth.” In our coming book and the film “Ahikuntaka – The Children of Paradise” I’ll describe more about working in the village at that time.

Since that first visit in 1982, I have followed the Ahikuntaka people throughout the years and seen the village develop and change. This spring we spent several days in the village, interviewing the elders and visiting with friends. No longer a hell on earth, it is now closer to paradise. What brought this change? I’ll tell you more about that later.

After our visit in Kudagama we traveled to Sri Lanka’s east coast to film and photograph the marine national park, Pigeon Island. The national park is a popular destination and the coral reefs surrounding the island have been damaged and destroyed by the many tourists walking in the bay, breaking off the delicate corals. Although Pigeon Island is worth a visit, the real excitement is to be found just outside the national park in the deeper water where the Sperm whales and Blue whales feed. We dove at several beautiful sites that week, but one day we were snorkeling in deep water when a Blue whale swam straight towards me. (The Blue whale is the largest creature to ever live on earth.) His enormous body was just a few yards in front of me when he slowly dove into the bottomless depths. The intensely blue water, laced with rays of sunlight, engulfed the whale as it was slowly sunk into the depths. It was magical. Swimming with that gentle giant in his own environment is an experience I’ll never forget.

Coming this fall, 2017, the film “Ahikuntaka – The Children of Paradise” and a book about my favorite places on the paradise island, Sri Lanka.

Premiere in Cambridge MN for the film “The Tom Coleman Story”

Premiere "The Tom Coleman Story"
Full house at the premiere of “The Tom Coleman Story” in Cambridge, MN. (Photo: Shawn Coleman)

The premiere of our film, “The Tom Coleman Story” was held in Cambridge, MN, on April 22, 2017. The Richard G. Hardy Performing Arts Center has 710 seats and every chair was filled. We even had to turn away a few people, unfortunately. During the first hour of the event I showed pictures and film clips from various projects, interspersed with music from the American Swedish Institute’s Spelmanslag and the musician, Frezgi Hiskias, and his choir from Ethiopia. Tom and his children, Judy and Bill, were also on the stage and spoke about their time in Ethiopia. The show was a tribute to Tom Coleman who also turned 95 years old that weekend. The premiere event was a great success; I don’t think that I have ever experienced such joy and appreciation at a film premiere before.

I first med Tom Coleman in the small town of Mora, one hour north of Minneapolis, MN. I think it was in 2007. Our friend, Gordon Hallstrom, had asked several Swedish-Americans to meet at the home of Elwood Ostrom to share their stories about their Scandinavian heritage. That was the first time I heard Tom Coleman tell a story told in the Orsa dialect, which is quite different from proper Swedish. We became good friends and over the years I filmed Tom as he told me many stories about his background and his Swedish heritage from Orsa in Dalarna, Sweden. I used those stories in the series, “Pretty Much 100% Scandinavian.”

Whenever I met Tom he would ask if I didn’t want to film his stories from his time working as a surgeon in Ethiopia for the film series I was making about Scandinavian emigrants to the USA. He even showed me pictures of horrible injuries and diseases he had treated in Africa. I answered each time that I didn’t think those stories would fit in the film. When I finished the series in 2013, however, I felt like I needed to learn more about Tom Coleman and his stories from Africa.

I was working on a film about the oldest man to ever ski the Swedish Mora race (Vasaloppet), Allan from Flaskhall. We brought Allan to the USA to visit his relatives in Seattle, stopping over in Minnesota on our way home to Sweden. I also brought Allan to meet Tom in Cambridge. Allan, who was born in 1918, became very good friends with Tom who is only four years younger. Allan was fascinated with Tom’s ability to speak perfect Swedish even though he was not born in Sweden. They were like two teenagers laughing at each other’s jokes and comparing scars from various injuries incurred during life. Allan won, of course, since he lost his left arm in a battle with a threshing machine. It was during that visit that I decided that Tom’s story needed to be documented on film.

In the three years that followed I made several visits to Minnesota and to Cambridge. I learned to know Tom’s wife, Elaine, and their children, Judy and Bill, who also have amazing stories from growing up in Ethiopia. At that time both Judy and Bill were living and working in California but flew to Minnesota to be interviewed. Judy has recently retired and moved to Cambridge to live with and help her parents. I admire the courage of the Coleman family to open up and share their lives for me and my film camera. Even if they had seen several of my films, I was still a relative stranger.

Ten years after I first met Tom Coleman we premiered “The Tom Coleman Story,” a tribute to a great man. I realized as we prepared for the premiere that Tom and his wife, Elaine, are greatly loved. People from all over the USA, Sweden and Ethiopia wanted to be a part of this tribute or send their greetings. It was a premiere with much laughter and tears of joy.

Here are a few of the comments we’ve received after the film:

“On a scale of 1 to 10, it was a 15 or 20.”

 What a blessing it was to be at the “Tom Coleman Story” on Saturday.  The music, testimonials, discussions and film were all superb.  It was truly a day we will never forget…”

 The film flows beautifully.  It is an incredible film.

 Many thanks to Tom, Elaine, Judy and Bill for sharing your lives and your amazing stories with us. You will always be in our thoughts.

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

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 .

My Friend Elsa

Elsa Lundh as a young girl
Elsa Lundh as a young girl.

One of the people I have worked with over the years, who’s story really touched me, was Elsa Lundh. Hers was a life filled with struggles and degradation, but ended in triumph.

Elsa was born in 1921 on the west coast of Sweden in a small cabin with a dirt floor. Her father, who was a sailor, left the family when the four children were still young. Her mother helped out on neighboring farms but had trouble providing for her family. Some days all they had to eat was a slice of rye bread each.

Elsa had no trouble learning reading, writing and arithmetic in school but she did have a small handicap that would have disastrous consequences – she stuttered. At that time people who stuttered were considered to be less intelligent, when in reality they were simply quiet and reserved, especially as children, since it was harder to communicate and be part of the gang.

Elsa had few friends but on midsummer’s eve, 1936, just a few weeks before her 15th birthday, she and a couple of friends were together playing in the forest. Her mother had told her she needed to come home at 10 o’clock, but it was such a lovely evening. The air was warm and smelled of flowers and summer and the sun was still shining. For once in her life Elsa was having fun. None of the children had a watch and they lost track of time.

When Elsa finally came back to the cabin it was 1 o’clock in the morning and the door was locked. Her mother had gone to bed and wouldn’t let her in. Elsa sat curled up by the door and tried to sleep but was too upset and frightened. Why had her mother locked the door?

The next morning, when her mother opened the door, her joy and relief was soon replaced by a new terror and bewilderment. Elsa’s mother took her by the hand and led her over to the neighbors where she explained that she could no longer handle her daughter and wanted Child Services to come and take her away. When the authorities came to pick up young Elsa it was the beginning of decades of torture and degradation.

Elsa was first taken into custody and then committed to various asylums. She was used for numerous medical experiments, sterilized and degraded by the personnel. Her mother never came to visit.

In all the years that Elsa was confined to institutions she had one visitor. Her little sister came to visit for a couple of days and they had so much fun together. Before leaving she gave Elsa a beautiful postcard with colorful flowers. Elsa was not allowed to have any personal belongings so she hid the postcard under the mattress. When the Head Nurse found the postcard a few days later she tore it up and threw it in the trashcan. Not long after her visit Anna died from leukemia. Elsa told me that she could forgive the doctors who performed terrible experiments on her, and the other personnel. She could even forgive her mother, but she could never forgive the Head Nurse who tore up her beautiful postcard.

Decades past before Elsa heard anything from her mother. When she had been locked up in institutions for 32 years her mother wrote to the Chief Psychiatrist at Restad Mental Hospital in Vänersborg. (Elsa had been in Restad for five years. Of the three institutions where she had been held, Restad was the worst.) Her mother asked the doctor to return her daughter to her since she was now old and needed someone who could carry water, chop wood and cook food. The Chief Psychiatrist deemed Elsa to be cured and released her to her mother who was now living in a small cabin outside of the town where I grew up, Vårgårda. It was a dilapidated old house with no running water or electricity. In the winter it was as cold inside as it was outside.

But this is not the end of Elsa’s story; it was actually just the beginning. I’ll write next about the time I first met Elsa and what happened later in her life.

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