Student sees Guatemala through film

Melanie Johnson, Writer

While many students enjoyed basking in sunny locations over the summer, one opted to spend a month in Guatemala—in the middle of that country’s rainy season.

Oregon native Malia Riggs ’19 said the reason for the trip was to work with Actuality Media, an organization that produces documentaries about “stories that matter” in just a four-week period. Riggs’, a Journalism and Media Studies major, is a former photo editor for the Linfield Review but had no prior experience with video. She thought the trip would be an effective way to learn cinematography.

In Guatemala, Rigg’s team was comprised of members from the U.S., Australia, Denmark, China, Hong Kong, the Netherlands and Canada.

They were assigned to a story about houses that are being built for those who were displaced by the eruption of the Fuego volcano in June this year.

However, over two weeks into filming, the project took an unexpected turn. The builders said that they wanted a promotional video made—not a documentary—and became unwilling to work with the film crew.

With just nine work days left, Actuality Media reassigned the team to a story about a farming project that the nonprofit Rising Minds developed in San Marcos.

The elders there, some as old as 90, walked to the highlands each day to farm—a challenging task for many of them.

Riggs said that growing coffee, corn and other vegetables is their livelihood. They do not know any other way to support themselves.

Rising Minds owns a 2-acre plot of land in the middle of town that they allow the elders to farm free of charge. The elders can eat or sell what they grow with one stipulation: they must in turn teach preschool children about good nutrition.

Riggs said that four out of 10 preschool age children in Guatemala are malnourished. Many children she heard of survive on chips or candy. The only food others receive is the lunch provided at Rising Mind’s school.

Interviewing the elders was challenging due to language differences. Riggs said questions had to be translated from English into Spanish and then into Tz’utujil, the Mayan language. Riggs said that the team and elders also used hand gestures and lots of smiles. She said that even with the communication difficulties and the late start on the project, the group successfully completed filming for the documentary in the remaining nine days.

Reflecting on her trip, Riggs said that the experience humbled her. She said that San Marcos has only had electricity and running water for 20 years and is “behind in everything.” She said it took her by surprise that there are people who “live off an ear of corn and some tortillas each day.” Coming from a country where people can have pizza delivered to their doorstep within 15 minutes, she said that it was hard to see people scale mountains every day to gather firewood for cooking. It made her want to do more to help others.

Riggs said it took her a few days to re-adjust to U.S. culture when she arrived home and that she has a new appreciation for simple things, such as washing her hands in warm water.

She said she also returned home with a newfound confidence in her ability to carry out whatever she sets out to do in the future. She said, “Learning how to use a movie camera got me out of my comfort zone.”

To others thinking about taking such a trip, Riggs said, “Don’t think about it—just do it.”