The Common Good
April 2011

When All Seems Lost: Filmmaker David Barnhart

by Christine Foust | April 2011

Filmaker David Barnhart helps disaster survivors tell their ongoing stories of healing and recovery.

In a small, unfinished art studio, a man named Mahmud paints the memory of how his village looked as it was destroyed by a tsunami. As the camera follows his careful brushstrokes, he reflects upon this process.

"As soon as I hold a paintbrush, I start to remember my child, and my heart starts pounding. Every day my painting brings back those memories. So, full recovery is never going to be possible for me. But ... I will always carry the stories of my children with me. If something makes me happy and I feel good, then I remember my children and the flavor of the rice that we ate together." He lost four of his children and more than half of his village.

Mahmud's story is just one of myriad personal tragedies caused by the Indian Ocean tsunami that tore through Southeast Asia on Dec. 26, 2004, claiming more than 283,000 lives. He is one of the survivors featured in the documentary film Kepulihan: Stories from the Tsunami, directed by David Barnhart. Kepulihan, an Indonesian word for the process of healing and recovery, is an intimate look at the lives of three individuals over the four years following the disaster, telling each person’s story in their own words.

Last fall, Kepulihan aired on ABC network affiliates for eight weeks as a recommended film of the Interfaith Broadcasting Commission. It has been selected for the Martin Luther King Jr. D.R.E.A.M. Festival, and screened at the Carter Center in Atlanta, the New School in New York, film festivals, and churches across the country.

For the last decade, Barnhart has worked with devastated communities in Southeast Asia, Africa, Central and South America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and in the U.S. Another of Barnhart’s films, Coming Home: Hurricane Katrina 5 Years Later, was shown on NBC last fall, and his projects continue to find support from artists and philanthropists alike. However, Barnhart has easily kept a low profile as a filmmaker because his work has been focused primarily on ministry through disaster assistance.

With a background in broadcast communications but little interest in the commercial side of the industry, Barnhart began his career working in therapeutic care, organizing drama and art therapy initiatives. In 1996, Barnhart traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina, as a volunteer with the Presbyterian Church USA, the denomination in which he was raised, to assist in a mission that reached out to street kids involved in the drug trade. Barnhart quickly developed creative therapy initiatives and theater groups, and he helped the kids write, produce, and then publicly perform their own plays.

"The kids wouldn't talk about what they had been through, but they would begin to tell their stories -- even their most horrible experiences -- through the plays they wrote," Barnhart says.

The following year, Barnhart went to Mexico after Hurricane Paulina to assist with community organizing work for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. Following the destructive Hurricane Mitch in 1998, Barnhart joined the staff of PDA and for the next three years served as the Latin America liaison, working with local partners to organize and facilitate disaster responses in Guatemala and Nicaragua.

During his time there, Barnhart began to understand deeply the needs of community organizing within disaster response, and colleagues took notice of his abilities. In 2001, Barnhart worked with Chris Herlinger, a writer for Church World Service, forming a team between the two organizations as they responded to two earthquakes in El Salvador.

"What I remember most from that experience was David’s care, empathy, and consummate professionalism," Herlinger says. But Barnhart also began wanting to connect his work with his interest in documentary filmmaking.

"I wanted it to be a collective process that seeks to be a part of the healing and recovery for survivors -- and give voice to that experience," Barnhart says. "Then I realized that I could work with these community leaders to tell their stories through film, rather than write these 20-page reports that nobody was reading."

So Barnhart began to bring his cameras with him as he did his organizing work, encouraging community leaders to document their ongoing recovery efforts. From this footage, Barnhart put together a short film.

"I began to see a 'story ministry' evolve and take shape," Barnhart recalls. "Jesus told stories, and he used stories to connect people, to heal, and to challenge oppressive structures. I wanted to know more about using story as ministry."

Barnhart returned to the U.S. to attend McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, where he made several films as part of his study. He filmed The Grandmothers: Story and the Movement Toward Reparations (2005) while studying in South Korea. When Barnhart completed his degree in 2005, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance offered Barnhart a position, specifically to make films about survivors of trauma. Soon after, Barnhart was on a plane to Indonesia, which was reeling in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami.

On his second day in Sumatra, Barnhart traveled to a small fishing community to have tea with local leaders. As he toured the village, Barnhart saw many men working on fishing boats, but he didn’t notice any woman or children. One of the leaders shared the story.

"When the tsunami waves came, all the men were out at sea. And so, all the men from our village survived. But all the women and little children who stayed home in the village, they were the ones who were lost," he said. "Of the 94 families, 90 of the women died." Barnhart says at that moment, he understood what the tsunami meant. "We went there to tell the human story of the recovery," Barnhart says. "But the reality ... leaves you speechless. We were standing on sacred ground and needed to listen."

Building and investing in relationships with the survivors is foundational to having the ability to do this kind of ministry, says Barnhart. From sharing meals to collectively reviewing interviews to brainstorming images together, the process of documenting through these relationships would take time to develop.

On their first trip, Barnhart and his team interviewed and filmed 26 participants from three villages over a period of six weeks. "We would interview people all day and hear stories of loss. It was overwhelming and it wore me down; it wore the whole team down. It was very difficult," Barnhart says.

When Barnhart realized that this process could not be completed nor could the story be captured in one trip, or even one year, he brought the project concept to PDA and they approved his support -- including better equipment and more assistance. "For people who have lost their loved ones, lost their homes, or their whole communities have been impacted -- you don’t recover in three months or six months," says Randy Ackley, director of PDA and a co-producer of Kepulihan. "David's work is a remarkable tool to have for disaster response."

On each successive trip, the participant group shrunk until just a handful of survivors were still available and enthusiastic about actively partnering with Barnhart in the documentation and production of the project. The individuals in the film include Yadi, a farmer who lost all 15 members of his family, including his wife and children; Mahmud, the fisherman and painter; and Damai, a young woman who became paralyzed after using her own body to shield her brother from their collapsing house during the earthquake that caused the tsunami.

Each of them shared their frustration, grief, and small recoveries with Barnhart, and he helped them explore ways to visually convey their stories and brainstorm the process of documentation. Barnhart returned to Sumatra about every eight months over a four-year period, and on each visit, he would play back their interviews from the previous trip, revisiting those earlier realities. Then, says Barnhart, they would begin to share new stories and new interpretations about the arc of their own recovery.

"Over time, they were able to reclaim the tsunami story as their own," Barnhart says. "I'd say, 'Tell me the story again,' and it would be different! I think the film became a triggering mechanism for critical consciousness." He continues, "We invested so much in each survivor that capturing that story visually together really embodied the art and ministry of the project. The result ... captures the healing and transformation of each individual."

Last summer, the advisory committee of PDA formally embraced the storytelling ministry as part of their mission and ministry. "As a ministry of the church, this storytelling is one important way that we can help bring the compassion of Christ to people who are vulnerable and have been impacted by disaster," Ackley says. "I'm very much looking forward to seeing how it progresses."

As Barnhart attends screenings and events for Kepulihan, he continues to receive encouragement and eager inquiries from viewers not only excited about the film, but about how he worked with the survivors. "There have been many people who work in trauma and counseling ... who come to screenings and ask me, 'How can this be developed further?' and 'How can we further cultivate this as a tool for healing and recovery?'"

As Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Barnhart have begun work on future projects, they hope to train survivors to use flip cams, still cameras, painting, murals, writing, and other forms of documentation to record the moments and events that PDA's team cannot. But for Barnhart, involving the survivors in the process of telling their own stories will continue to be at the heart of his films.

"There is something to this -- that story can enable people who have experienced some kind of trauma to move forward in a process of recovery," Barnhart says. "Stories carry the seeds of community and are powerful tools for transformation."

Christine Foust is a freelance writer in Chicago. For more on Kepulihan go to www.thetsunamifilm.com.

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