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 .

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.

Real Adventures

Himba girl with goat
Young Himba girl with her favourite goat

One of the popular Christmas gifts for 2016 was VR-gear, a mask or headset that you wear to experience worlds or places that may or may not exist. We live in an era where many people avoid venturing out to experience true adventures in places that actually exist. How did that happen? Have we become so bored with our protected and comfortable lives that we need to seek adventure in a fantasy world where we needn’t sweat, freeze or experience anything real? What kind of effect will this virtual reality have on our ability to empathize with actual experiences and genuine emotions?

While working in different countries I’ve come across cultures and people living without the conveniences we take for granted. Aborigines in Australia, Veddas on Sri Lanka, the Maasai in Tanzania, and the Inuit in Alaska all share one thing in common – they live close to nature and have often chosen to live without the gadgets we deem necessary to make our lives simpler, more comfortable and “adventurous”.

In Namibia, in southwestern Africa, I was fascinated by the young Himba children who, at only 6 years of age, work as goatherds. School in Namibia is not mandatory and many of the Himba children living in remote areas have no opportunity to attend classes, others are not allowed to because they are needed to herd the family’s goats. It is their task until they are 12 – 13 years old.

After sunrise, when they have eaten their corn porridge, the children gather the 100-200 goats and drive them out into the wilderness. Sometimes they have to wander far in search of food and water for their herd. For protection from snakes and predators, like leopards and sometimes lions, they carry a big stick, which they soon become very proficient at handling. These children have no need for expensive gadgets to experience virtual excitement; their lives are quite adventurous already. In the evening, when they return to the village, it’s time to milk the goats. Goat milk is an important part of the Himbas rather limited diet, which otherwise consists primarily of corn meal porridge.

While shooting the footage for our film, ”Himba – the Red People” now premiering in Sweden, we spent many weeks in a Himba village without toilets, electricity, water or shelter from the penetrating sun. We slept, worked and ate on the ground, which was covered in layers of dung from hundreds of cattle and goats. Revolting at first, we soon became accustomed to it. Christofer Wärnlöf, anthropologist and researcher, who worked with us on this film, says that animal dung is considered a valuable asset rather than a problem. Christofer speaks from experience since he lived with the Himbas for years while studying their culture. They are no more bothered by cow dung than we are of leaves falling from the trees. It is also an essential building material. All of the huts in the village are constructed with branches and a mixture of cow dung, sand and water. During drought, when the cattle are driven away from the village, the huts deteriorate from lack of materials for repairs.

The Himba people have an almost inexplicable joy that can be difficult to understand. We would find their living conditions intolerable and their lives monotonous. And what about those little kids, wandering in the desert with their goats – isn’t that dangerous? Well…I asked the elders in the village, but no one could recall any fatalities. After getting a taste of the stick the goatherds handle so prodigiously, any predator would probably think twice before getting too close. Hot, dusty, tedious – but at any given moment they might stop what they’re doing and dance! No music, no instruments – just clapping their hands to a rhythm.

The sights, the sounds, the smells, and the people – it was real; it was adventurous! Not something you can find in a box. I have friends and colleagues who have challenged themselves with incredible feats like bicycling across continents, climbing mountains or sailing around the world – hot, dusty, and tedious. They all say they had the time of their lives! So no, I don’t think last years #1 Christmas present is anything for me.

Destination Himbaland

Himba village in northwest Namibia
Himba village in northwest Namibia

Having travelled just about as far as it is possible to drive through the Namibian wilderness, over dry, sandy riverbeds and through endless bush, we finally reach Ombutisouri and the little “ongandan” (village) where the Tjambiru family lives. They are Himbas, a culture with traditions dating back many generations. There are an estimated 30,000 Himbas living scattered across this immense desert area of northwest Namibia and into southern Angola.

The Himba are nomads, moving with their cattle to wherever there is water. They are related to the Herrero with whom they share a language. Goats scatter as I walk through the narrow opening in the dense wall of thorn bushes, which encompasses the small village. There is a multitude of chickens, dogs, goats, cows and enormous oxen. Sleeping on the roof of one of the huts I spy a couple of common housecats.

In the middle of the village is another smaller circular enclosure constructed with thick branches stuck down into the ground. This is where the family keeps their most valuable animals and where they bring the cows to be milked. I count seven huts built with mopane branches and covered in a mixture of cow dung, clay and sand.

The younger members of the family come forward to greet me; we have known each other for several years. Moneemoha, their father and chief of the village, and his wife, Mbooua, sit on the other side of the village and wait for me. Although we don’t speak the same language, I can tell by their expressions and gestures that I am welcome.

It was my good friend Christofer Wärnlöf from Vedum, Sweden who first told me about this place. He is an anthropologist and one of the leading authorities in the Himba culture. Christofer has a Ph.D. in social anthropology from Gothenburg University and wrote his thesis on the Himba culture.

In the early 1990’s Christofer moved to the Namibian wilderness to conduct the research for his thesis. With two pre-school children at home, it was a great sacrifice for him and his family and it took much longer than anticipated. Christofer lived with the Himba for two years before he felt that his research was complete and he could return to Sweden. Although his thesis is long since finished, Christofer has returned at least once a year to visit his friends in northern Namiba and to continue his research. No other researcher has done such extensive field studies of the Himba culture as Christofer.

Working with the documentary film about Christofer and the Himba people has been an enormously exciting project that has given me insight into one of the world’s most unique cultures. What I find to be most valuable for me personally working with a number of cultures is that I have gained an understanding that we are, indeed, very different. I am convinced that if we were all the same, the world would be a very boring place.

The film, “Himba- the Red People”, premieres in Sweden on February 3, 2017. The English version will be released later this year. For more information see cameraQ.com

The Road to Himbaland

Two Himba women
Himba women

In the 40 years that I have been working and traveling around the world I have come across people living in all kinds conditions. A safe and comfortable life is not guaranteed no matter where in the world you live. Many people desire every comfort available, while some choose to live a different life. The Himba people of northwest Namibia are a culture where many members choose to live far from the modern conveniences most of us take for granted.

If you drive 740 km north from Windhoek, you’ll come to the Himba capital city, Opuwo. At first glance it’s a rather insignificant, dusty and dirty town, but when you notice the people on the street, it’s a cultural kaleidoscope. Men in suits; women in large, colorful dresses; teenagers in jeans and T-shirts; and women with reddish skin dressed in short leather skirts and with their ample breasts exposed for all the world to see. That’s when you know you’re in Himbaland!

The first time I was grocery shopping in Opuwo I stood in line at the checkout stand behind a man in a suit and a barefoot, bare breasted, red Himba woman. No one – not the girl at the cash register, not the businessman or anyone else – batted an eye or raised an eyebrow. It was just a common occurrence in this uncommon town.

There are many things to experience in Opuwo but after stocking up at the grocery store I drove west along a gravel road about 110 km to Etanga. From there I continued a couple more hours through the wilderness where the roads are barely distinguishable, until I come to the small onganda where some of our friends live. We have been working with these people since 2013, filming their daily lives. That film premieres in Sweden on February 3-6, 2017.

Next week I’ll write more about the fascinating Himba people and about Dr. Christofer Wärnlöf who lived with them for several years and has studied the Himba culture for over 25 years.

World’s Greatest Job

Stefan Quinth standing on top of a mountain overlooking Frazer Lake, Kodiak, Alaska
Stefan Quinth, Kodiak, Alaska, 2006

My name is Stefan Quinth and I am a wildlife/documentary filmmaker. I’ve actually never been anything else. Well, except for the time I worked as a freelance journalist from 8th grade through high school. I wrote for local newspapers and sometimes had as many as four or five articles a day. I loved to tell stories and found it quite fulfilling to write about things I felt were important. But then, all of a sudden, a new media opened up to me–television.

I was 17 when I made my first film and sold it to Swedish Television. I mailed the film on a Tuesday and the very next morning the telephone rang. A woman on the other end asked very politely if they could please buy my film. No television company has every purchased a film from us that quickly since then ­– it was definitely a record, possibly a world record – but it convinced me that film is a great way to tell stories.

Working with film, music, or any other art form is exciting and when your artwork, in my case a film, is premiered and the audience reacts with laughter or tears at the right moment, it makes it all worth the effort. Few people realize just how much work goes into producing a film. I was packing up my equipment after showing a film somewhere in southern Sweden when an older woman approached me and complimented me on the film. I always enjoy interacting with my audience. The woman stood there for a moment more, eyeing me quizzically, before she asked, “But do you have a real job?”

I suppose it’s a valid question–even though I have produced hundreds of films for television, numerous educational films about geography and cultures, and many other films for various organizations. Can you really have this much fun and still call it a work? When I visit schools or universities to show films and talk about wildlife, nature or cultures, students will approach me and say, “You must have the greatest job in the world!” I would have to agree. Being a wildlife/documentary filmmaker is probably the greatest job you could have.

In future blogs I’ll tell you stories about a wonderful world, a world worth fighting for.

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