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In a Strange Land

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"Culture shock" is one way to describe what Jim Lingo felt last spring when he accompanied his friend and co-worker, James Nhial, to Nhial's home country, Sudan. Lingo, the only Westerner in the Bamburye camp for Sudanese displaced by civil war, didn't speak any of the dozens of languages used in southern Sudan. Nor did he usually know what was going on amidst the preparations and ceremonies flurrying around Nhial's wedding.

 

 

Luckily for Lingo, his cameras got through -- both his Super 8 mm film camera and a Hi-8 video model. Either machine, along with Lingo's stash of Super 8 film, might have been lost in transit at multiple points along the way, including the flight to Uganda. A selection of Lingo's footage, including the wedding ceremony and the slaughtering of a cow for the feast, will be featured at the next installment of the Film Kitchen screening series (which is co-sponsored by City Paper). Also featured will be work by Lucas McNelly and short videos by Chris Tourre.

 

Lingo, 30, is best known in Pittsburgh as a singer and guitarist with underground rock bands including Midnite Snake, The Pay Toilets and burgeoning favorite Centipede E'st. He learned film and video rudiments from filmmaker friends, but had done most of his previous shooting on long trips to visit friends in Alaska. The Africa trip began with some gentle ribbing of his grocery-store co-worker -- one of the Sudanese "lost boys" who relocated to Pittsburgh -- and then started to sound plausible. "James is just one of the greatest guys I've ever met," says Lingo. "I just wanted to go see him get married."

 

About one week of the two Lingo spent in Sudan involved preparations for the wedding, including lengthy dowry negotiations by the two families. The unfamiliarity of life in a remote settlement in a desperately poor country, one where traditional ties and customs run deep, was alternately disorienting and exhilarating to Lingo. But he ended up cutting his trip short, from a planned three months to five weeks total. Turns out the sub-Saharan pace of life was too much for this American kid. "After the wedding," says Lingo, "it was so slow it was almost maddening."

 

Reminiscences about even something so emotionally charged as the campaign for civil rights can assume an aura of complacency and self-congratulation. In recalling those battles in the American South, historians and other storytellers risk making it sound as if they all stayed won, and that the injustices that sparked them live only in the past.

 

That trap is apparently avoided on Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights, a annual weeklong summer bus tour organized by Todd Allen, an associate professor of communications at Geneva College. Participants, most from the Pittsburgh area, stop in cities from Greensboro, N.C., and Atlanta to the Alabama towns of Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham. More importantly, they hear first-hand accounts of those heady, terrifying times in the 1950s and '60s: Speakers include Georgia Congressman John Lewis, Donzaleigh and Juanita Abernathy, the Rev. Robert Graetz, Johnnie Carr and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.

 

Lucas McNelly, 26, is a Geneva grad and filmmaker who's documented the past three tours. At the Feb. 14 Film Kitchen, he'll screen "Reclaiming Our Past," a half-hour piece mostly drawn from the 2005 tour.

 

"Reclaiming Our Past" is not typical of McNelly's personal work, which leans toward humorous narratives such as the other short he'll screen at Film Kitchen, "a French new wave ripoff" titled "L'Attente" he made for the recent multimedia show Life. and other one-man shows. The Dormont resident also does freelance commercial video projects. But "I've been gambling for a living lately," says McNelly, who credits most of his income to online poker.

 

Though his lifestyle might be humorously at odds with the righteous resolve depicted in "Reclaiming Our Past," McNelly was moved by the tour. "It took me the whole editing process just to process it," he says. "It's all so riveting."

 

Riveting, and cautionary too. As one interview subject -- one of the Little Rock Nine teen-agers who integrated a whites-only high school -- puts it, much of the progress they fought for has been lost.

 

"We are back to before the '70s in terms of segregation of schools," says Minnijean Brown Trickey. "I think we decided that's who we wanted to be in this country."

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