Category Archives: Wildlife/Documentary Filming

The Art of Filming Crocodiles

Crocodile
Perhaps he had crossed the river just to see if I really was a crocodile.

While working on Sri Lanka I often saw crocodiles that quickly disappeared beneath the surface before I was able to capture them on film. That was kind of frustrating. I had, for several years, tried building hides up in the trees, inside hollowed trunks, hides virtually invisible for the human eye, but the crocodiles, which are highly intelligent creatures, always knew I was there.

Over the years I had gotten to know the Swedish wildlife filmmaker, Jan Lindblad. One evening we were talking and I asked him what I should do to film crocodiles. He hadn’t really worked much with crocodiles and didn’t have any concrete advice, but he told me that he had learned a few tricks over the years. “One way,” he said, “is to sound like the animal, smell like the animal, or move like the animal that you are trying to film.”

Well, crocodiles grunt similar to pigs but most of the time they’re pretty quiet, so imitating the way they sound wouldn’t be easy and I wasn’t really interested in smelling like a crocodile. Moving like a crocodile, that might be worth trying.

A couple of days later I decided to try it. In a clearing in the middle of the jungle I found a mudflat dissected by a meandering river. Through the binoculars I spotted five crocodiles. I left the rest of the team in the jeep that we parked about 400 yards away, far enough to avoid scaring the crocs. A few yards from the jeep I laid down and began the slow, arduous task of crawling on my belly like a crocodile, pushing the camera in front of me on a specially-made sled. After every push forward I stopped to make sure the crocodiles by the river hadn’t moved. Three hours later I reached the edge of the river. The crocs were still maybe 50 meters away.

Suddenly one of the crocodiles on the other side of the river slid into the water. “Well, that’s that,” I thought, “it’s not going to work this time either.” I lay perfectly still, my head in my hands, waiting for the rest of the crocodiles to do the same thing, but nothing happened. Strange! Surprisingly, off to my left, a pair of eyes slowly broke the surface just a little bit more than an arms-length away from where I was lying by the river’s edge. Apparently the crocodile from the other side had not been frightened, but had come across to check me out. Was he simply curious, or was he looking to see what could be on the menu this hot afternoon? It didn’t matter to me in the least. I was so ecstatic that my efforts had paid off, I had finally gotten close to these shy giants. Slowly I turned the camera and focused on the crocodile’s eyeballs. I started the camera rolling and we laid there, staring at each other for a couple of minutes. When I had gotten my sequence, the eyes slowly disappeared under the water and the croc swam across to the beach on the other side of the river. When he had gotten comfortable in the afternoon sun, he opened his mouth. That is a sign that the crocodile feels safe and happy.

Perhaps he had crossed the river just to see if I really was a crocodile. Apparently he decided that, despite some rather obvious defects, I was acceptable. For the rest of the afternoon, until the sun was going down, I crawled around amidst the crocodiles like I was part of the group. It’s important to test every possiblity in order to succeed, even in some things seem a little crazy.

Birth of a Filmmaker

Stefan Quinth - age 3
My interest in wildlife and nature began at an early age.

My motivation is to produce films that will encourage people and help them see new possibilities. We need positive messages in a world where the media has, unfortunately, become pessimistic and violent.

You know that children are fascinated by anything crawling on the ground: worms, beetles, and all kinds of animals. I was the same way growing up. Wherever there were bugs, I would be there digging them up. I grew up near fields and woods. My father, who didn’t really share my interest for wildlife and things that crawled on the ground, told me often, “Be careful in the woods, son, and never go close to the stone walls because there are snakes there.”

Snakes? Well, at four or five years old, I just had to find out what was so dangerous about those creepy, crawly creatures. I had no choice but to crawl on and around the stone walls looking for the things I was supposed to look out for. So that’s what I did and my interest in wildlife and nature was sparked.

When I was 15 years old I worked after school, evenings and weekends as a photographer and journalist for the local newspaper. It was rewarding to tell stories with words and pictures. But I was soon introduced to something even more exciting and rewarding, filmmaking! When I was 17, my friends and I produced a film that got a lot of attention. We didn’t really have a name for our film until after we held a press conference. On the front page of the local newspaper was a picture from the film under the headline, “Tarzan – Son of Moose.” We thought that sounded pretty good. Later, I sent the film to Swedish Television and they called the very next day and asked if they could purchase the film. I’ve never sold a film that quickly to a television station since then.

When the film had been aired all over Sweden the verdict was in. The Daily News (Dagens Nyheter) wrote the next day:

”There are many talented and ambitions wildlife and documentary filmmakers in this country. But the film that took up the majority of the last episode should have stayed within the confines of the closest friends, to be shown only after consuming the sixth or seventh cocktail of moonshine and Coca-Cola. That anything so embarrassing and asinine could be shown on Swedish Public Service Television is disgusting. Is this what our license money pays for? If I worked for that organization and had been responsible for choosing that film for public viewing, I would go underground and not emerge again until the trumpets sounded on judgment day.

Well, he certainly didn’t spare our feelings but, can you believe it, the Daily News’ critic had suffered through our entire film and written about it!?! It didn’t matter to us at all if he liked the film or not. That was my first film to be aired in every house all over the country. The door to a world of filmmaking stood wide open.

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.

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.

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.

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 .

Thank You So Much!

Premiere "Himba - The Red People"
Premiere “Himba – The Red People” February 3, 2017, Vedum, Sweden

This weekend we held the premiere for our film, ”Himba – det röda folket” (Himba – The Red People), a film about a unique culture in southwest Africa. When I’ve been working on a production for several years and are finally ready to plan the premiere, expectations are high and I am always curious how the audience will respond. Will they react the way I’ve hoped? By that time I’ve seen the movie hundreds of times, back and forth, and am, quite honestly, sick to death of it. It’s hard for me to judge if it is any good. Technically I know that it is ok, but will the audience appreciate the film and understand the message.

Producing a film or writing a book has many challenges. It’s like wandering out into unknown territory and having to climb a mountain. In the beginning it is rather pleasant as you walk up the foot of the mountain, but after awhile the path becomes steeper and more rugged. It’s a long haul to the summit, and by the time you finally reach it your thoughts are muddled and you wonder if it was really worth the effort. Then suddenly the sun breaks through and the clouds dissipate to reveal an enchanted landscape. (The audience has stayed awake through the entire show and the first applause breaks out in the theater.) Yes! It was worth the effort. Descending the mountain is easier, but on the way down we see the next mountain looming in the distance. A new film awaits, a new story to be told.

During the first showings of any film I’ll stand in the darkness and study the faces in the audience. It is from their expressions that I’ll get the first indication of whether or not I have succeeded in getting my message across. I’m filled with a kind of apprehensive anticipation.

So how was the premiere weekend for “Himba – the Red People”? We’ve showed the film to a full house each evening and the response has been fantastic. We’ve been inundated in gratitude and have received many messages, emails and posts from people expressing their appreciation. We’ve also been asked to show the movie in other parts of Sweden. All anxiety about how the film will be received has evaporated and I realize that my efforts were not in vain.

I am very grateful to everyone who came to see the film during this premiere weekend. Special thanks to Christofer Wärnlöf and everyone at Häggatorp, who arranged a spectacular premiere party on Friday after the first show. Häggatorp’s Manor House, built in the 1700’s, was filled with people and music from the live African band, and we enjoyed a tasty buffet laid out in the charming dining room. I also want to express my immense appreciation to Namibia’s ambassador, Morina Muuondjo, and her staff who has been with us this weekend for the premiere. Ambassador Morina is a great inspiration for our work in Namibia.

Our next film premiere will be held in Cambridge, Minnesota on April 22. It is a wonderful story about Dr. Tom Coleman, a surgeon who spent a large part of his life working to save the lives of thousands of people in Ethiopia. “The Tom Coleman Story” is an extraordinary account of a remarkable man whom I will write more about in the coming weeks.

See the trailer for “The Tom Coleman Story” here.