April 22, 2014
By Jesse Dykhoff ’14
Extending the Link (ETL) co-directors Rachel Mullin and Sean Raible know that in the world of documentary production, one must have a great deal of flexibility to capture the right moments.
That flexibility meant adapting both to a crowded ride up a mountain in Thailand, and navigating I-94 through the heart of the Twin Cities, to film ETL's latest documentary.
"Ger Kler: Journey of Untold Strength" debuts at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 30, in the Stephen B. Humphrey Theater, SJU. A second screening takes place at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 1, at Pellegrene Auditorium, SJU.
"Ger Kler," which means "never broken" in English, is the seventh documentary produced by ETL, a student-run organization through CSB and SJU and the Donald McNeely Center for Entrepreneurship.
The film tells the story of the Karen, a group of refugees located on the border between Thailand and Burma (also known as Myanmar). When Burma gained its independence in 1948, the Karen and other ethnic groups were told that they could have autonomous regions - a promise that was not kept by the Burmese government. The Karen land was taken as a result of a hostile military campaign, forcing the Karen to flee into the jungles and find their way to refugee camps. (Editor's note: ETL used Burma throughout the documentary, as that is how the Karen refer to the country.)
To capture the story, six members of ETL spent 21 days in December filming in Thailand, the longest amount of time the group has ever spent abroad. After arriving in Bangkok, the group visited the Mae Ra Mu, Mae La and Tham Him refugee camps, taking the trip up a mountain in a crowded truck to Mae Ra Mu camp.
"I think we were all blown away by [the Mae Ra Mu camp]. I think I would describe it as the most beautiful place I've ever seen because it's set in this beautiful location with all of these trees, jungles, running water and everything. We were so excited to be there. Then you realize that they just wish they could leave," said Mullin, a senior political science and history major at CSB.
The struggle of the Karen goes beyond Thailand, as many of the refugees have settled in other countries and here in Minnesota.
"We chose the topic of refugees because it's something that everyone has heard about, but no one knows about. We think it's really important that we acknowledge the fact that there is a huge refugee population in the Twin Cities, so that's something that ETL wanted to highlight," Mullin said.
"It can be hard to discern them between immigrants who come here by choice and people who come here out of necessity, which we wanted to highlight," said Raible, a senior political science and sociology major at SJU. "We wanted to focus on the Karen because they are a growing population. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, there are currently about 7,000 Karen individuals who were essentially chased from their villages along the Thai-Burma border, where they call their home."
"We wanted to bring it back home to show that once you get to the United States, the struggles of being a refugee are not over. Yes, you have a place to stay, but there are still a variety of issues you face every day. We wanted to show the trials and the success stories of what it means to be a refugee," Mullin added.
ETL's goal is to more firmly incorporate ETL's motto, "Think globally, act locally," into the film's message.
"We're trying something new with this year's ETL film. In the past, it's been exclusively the international component. We've gotten some criticism for not showing the local component, so we made a decision this year that the film will highlight both the Thailand and Minnesota components of the issue," Mullin said.
For Mullin and Raible, the primary goal is to increase understanding of refugee issues among students, faculty and the community at large.
To that end, the group made drastic alterations to its funding process. Unlike previous years, when ETL sought grants to supplement fundraising efforts at CSB and SJU, the team decided to take a risk and try the popular crowd-funding service Kickstarter to fund the project through the community. The campaign was a resounding success, surpassing their original goal and raising $6,700 for the film.
"It's our responsibility to prepare ourselves for the more global community. There is so much outside of the Saint John's and Saint Ben's communities that we need to be prepared for. We need to be willing to open our arms and embrace everybody," Raible said.
"To really embrace others, we need to be able to understand — even a little bit, as we aren't going to be able to really understand the conflict, or the whole issue. Even the Karen leaders we have spoken to have said that they don't understand it all the time. But if you can understand a little bit, it makes it easier to embrace each other," Raible added.
Members of the Karen community from the Twin Cities will be in attendance for the debut of "Ger Kler: Journey of Untold Strength," the latest documentary from Extending the Link (ETL) at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 30, in the Stephen B. Humphrey Theater, SJU.
The event will include the documentary, a Karen speaker, a performance by a Karen choir, and a panel with Karen and ETL members to answer questions about the film. Afterwards, ETL will have tables set up for CSB and SJU community members to get more information and become involved.
A second screening takes place at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 1, at Pellegrene Auditorium, SJU.