--- Richard Bovard
GENERATIONS TOUCHED BY STORY
To many adults, the word "documentary" has the same ring that
the words "brussels sprouts" do for children: no one usually
comes running for either one. However, NDSU Libraries and Prairie
Public Television found a recipe for documentary filmmaking
that has left the public wanting more, and they have the resources
to keep them coming back to the table.
In 1999, NDSU Libraries collaborated with Prairie Public Television
and produced the documentary, "The Germans from Russia: Children
of the Steppe, Children of the Prairie." The one-hour film presents
an in-depth look at the heritage and culture of German settlers
who moved to Russia and their succeeding generations who immigrated
to America. The documentary features video from Germany, Ukraine
and several locations in the United States and Canada.
Public reaction to the film was overwhelming, even to those
who expected a big response. More than 7,000 copies of the video
have been sold to its viewers and it won a prestigious documentary
filmmaking award. But more importantly, it has left family members
across several generations with a common interest in learning
and sharing more about the history, genealogy and heritage of
Richard Bovard, professor of English, believes the documentary
provides a different but important type of engagement with the
community than the more obvious types of outreach the university
"The documentary has the most striking effects. People's eyes
have been opened," Bovard said. "It has a different way of affecting
North Dakotans; it's not a financial benefit or health improvement,
but it's had a positive effect on the culture of the region."
That effect is apparent in the hundreds of letters Michael
Miller, NDSU Germans from Russia bibliographer, has received
from across the state and country from people who saw the film.
Shona Dockter of Roseville, Minnesota, wrote, "I was enthralled
every minute as I watched. What a wonderful achievement. I cannot
describe the pride I felt as I watched the story of our people
unfold. For my father, the most touching moment was the chance
to actually see the Russian steppe where his father had walked.
My mother was struck by the isolation the immigrants must have
felt when they homesteaded on the prairies. Thank you for making
our history come alive for hundreds of people."
According to Bovard, several of the letters indicate the interest
in the video is not limited to one age group. Grandparents have
bought copies for their grandchildren so the story can be passed
down to future generations, but the group between those two
generations is perhaps feeling the greatest effects of the video.
"Parents didn't want to talk about their heritage around or
after the World War II. There was a stigma about immigrants
and many stereotypes associated with Germans," Bovard said.
"People in the `middle' generation may have known a little about
their heritage, but suddenly feel good about their past for
the first time."
Jolene Geist Ehret of Kileen, Texas, echoes this sentiment
in her letter: "For the first time in my life, I am actually
proud of my heritage. I only wish I could have learned more
from my grandparents before they passed on. I can hardly wait
for my children to watch the video."
Following the positive reaction to the film, the NDSU Libraries
and Prairie Public Television collaboration continued. A teacher's
guide was developed to accompany the documentary, and more than
300 videotapes and teacher's guide were sent to all North Dakota
public and private schools compliments of Prairie Public and
NDSU Libraries. The spring of 2000 saw the release of a second
film, "Schmeckfest: Food Traditions of the Germans from Russia,"
which premiered in North Dakota, South Dakota and Arizona.
The library's Germans from Russia Heritage Collection also
is a valuable resource for those interested in further studying
their history. Much of the collection is available on NDSU's
Web site at http://library.ndsu.edu/gerrus.
The site contains more than 25 links to maps, oral history,
poetry and cookbooks, conventions, books and photos.
Miller also organizes summer trips to the "homeland" in Russia
to people interested in seeing a part of their histories firsthand.
Though not typical engagement in terms of economic development
or community service, the NDSU Libraries have provided an opportunity
for a cultural experience that has had an unmistakable impact
on the region. Besides collaborations to produce films about
Germans from Russia, the library's heritage collection is able
to feed the appetites of those who wish to learn even more about
their history. Through technology and the Internet, NDSU's services
can reach all around the world.