Student project grows into NET documentary

Apr 28th, 2009 | By | Category: April 23, 2009, Campus News, Issue

One 17-year-old. One video camera.

One remarkable intellectual and artistic journey.

In a new documentary, UNL freshman Natalia Ledford explores the experiences of a group of young Sudanese men and women who fled civil conflict in their home country and resettled in Lincoln. Her film, “Paths of the Displaced,” will premiere at the Ross Media Arts Center at 7 p.m. April 27. The screening is free and open to the public.

Ledford originally met the students at Lincoln High School, and decided to learn more about Sudan by interviewing them for the school newspaper. Those first conversations opened her eyes to Sudan’s brutal civil war, and also to the resilience of her refugee classmates.

Natalia Ledford and Musa Kishieb
DOCUMENTARY DUO – Natalia Ledford and Musa Kishieb share a laugh in the Selleck Dining Hall on April 10. Ledford, a freshman journalism student, worked with NET to create a documentary about refugees from Sudan. Photo by Troy Fedderson/University Communications.

She decided to pick up a camera and ask more questions.

“My first idea was to videotape an interview with the Sudanese students telling their stories, edit it on my Macbook, and show it to classes at Lincoln High,” Ledford said. “Actually, we all came up with that idea together. That was the root of it.”

An early turning point took the film project to the next level. Ledford’s mother asked a friend to give Natalia a tour of the Nebraska Educational Telecommunications studio. While there, she met Mike Farrell, a producer, and told him about her Sudanese friends. To her surprise, he expressed interest in the story idea and offered her coaching on filmmaking and access to editing space at NET.

“Over the course of my senior year, I got more and more into this story, and there was a point at which I realized, this is a really big deal,” Ledford said.

It was a huge time commitment for a high school student. Ledford estimates that she spent roughly 2000 hours editing her raw footage of interviews, as well as others’ footage and photographs of the war in Sudan.

“I didn’t have much of a social life, but it was worth it,” she said. “I didn’t think my American friends really understood until they saw the film, and there was a lot of joking about how I was never around. But as time went on, they got it, and realized it was worthwhile.”

The film follows several individuals’ stories. Most were students at Lincoln High, and all faced unique struggles in their lives outside of school. Monica wants to return to Sudan to visit her grandparents, but knows that if she does, her father will force her into marriage and ruin her chance of pursuing her professional dreams in the U.S. Guuma, who spent most of his childhood “running away from war,” desires to become a doctor and return to Sudan, despite the fact that he arrived in Lincoln without even an elementary education. Kuol wrestles with memories of his time as a child soldier.

One of the strengths of Ledford’s film is the candor she lends as a narrator. She tells of meeting the Sudanese students for the first time and is honest about her own grief-stricken response to their stories of hardship. Ledford and Farrell agreed early on that the film’s tone needed to be transparent. Ledford wasn’t going to be able to fake a third-person National Geographic style, and so she eschewed conventional documentary style in favor of a more honest, personal narrative.

“As I was writing the script, it was almost like I was writing in a journal,” she said. “I would come away from a shoot and be really emotional, but I didn’t really have anyone that I could call; I couldn’t call a Sudanese person because I didn’t want them to know that they were breaking my heart. So writing the script was a catharsis, and I liked being able to honestly write about how the content was affecting me.”

Although the film is complete, Ledford is still tweaking the final version as she finishes her first year of college. Before graduating from high school in 2008, she was one of two students in the U.S. to receive a $50,000 scholarship from the Freedom Forum. Though the college world was, to a certain extent, “her oyster,” she readily decided to stay in Lincoln and attend UNL.

“If it wasn’t for NET I wouldn’t be here right now,” she said. “I wanted to finish this project, and I wanted to maintain my ties with NET.”

A broadcast journalism major with a focus on anthropology, Ledford plans to take advantage of UNL’s study abroad programs. This summer she’ll travel to Rwanda and begin a new video project, and she hopes to spend a semester in Ghana next year.

“Paths of the Displaced” will air on NET in June. Ledford and Farrell have hopes that it will picked up for national distribution.

— Story by Sara Gilliam, University Communications

“Paths of the Displaced” premiere
7 p.m., April 27
Ross Media Arts Center
Screening is free and open to the public.

Watch a preview at

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