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Films try to answer questions

Andrea Palpant, left, and Dave Tanner, background, are producing a documentary aimed at Whitworth students. Journalism professor Ginny Whitehouse talks with them about her life experience. 
 (Christopher Anderson/ / The Spokesman-Review)
Andrea Palpant, left, and Dave Tanner, background, are producing a documentary aimed at Whitworth students. Journalism professor Ginny Whitehouse talks with them about her life experience. (Christopher Anderson/ / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s a simple question people spend their whole lives trying to answer.

What do you want to do with your life?

A documentary team at Whitworth College is exploring the ways people answer that question, in an effort to help students figure it out for themselves.

“What is vocation? Why is it important?” said Andrea Palpant, a producer with North by Northwest Productions working on the film for Whitworth. “It’s an exploration. Your career is not some kind of fixed gold pot at the end of the rainbow. It’s something that happens over a lifetime.”

The film explores the idea of vocation as more than a job – it’s a way of blending a person’s skills and beliefs with the way they work, worship and interact with family and community.

“It’s how you choose to be on a daily basis,” journalism professor Ginny Whitehouse told Palpant during a recent interview for the film.

The film, which will be shown to first-year Whitworth students, is the latest collaboration between a team of people at the college and North by Northwest Productions. Palpant and producer Dave Tanner head up a documentary division at the production company, and it’s their second collaboration with Whitworth history professor Dale Soden.

“We’re excited about this medium of documentary storytelling, and it’s really taking off,” Tanner said.

For the film, students, faculty members and staffers are being interviewed. They’re given a 10-question guide beforehand, asking them to consider their gifts, passions, skills, purposes and convictions, and place them in the context of work, family, church, community and the world.

“As you reflect on these and zero in on them, it gives you a foundation for figuring out what you want to do with your life,” Soden said.

The documentarians say Whitworth has a particular commitment to this kind of approach.

The Presbyterian-affiliated college emphasizes an “education of mind and heart” that includes faith and scholastics.

The collaboration between Soden and the production company produced an hour-long documentary last year about the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II, “In Time of War.” The documentary, which was shown on public television locally, will be offered to other stations this spring, and Tanner says he’s hopeful that it could reach 50 markets or so.

That documentary is the most polished, public example of the kind of popular histories that Soden has been working on in recent years.

“He’s a unique historian in that he has the typical respect and admiration for history in its more classical, written form, but he’s committed to making it accessible,” Palpant said.

American tragedy

Soden says it’s not hard to figure out his interest in such work, given the popularity of Ken Burns-style history such as “The Civil War.”

Soden and Tanner first collaborated on a video history of their church – St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. Soon, Soden was working the archives at Whitworth, and the college began gathering and indexing photos and records.

At one point, he came across a photo of the 1944 men’s basketball team.

Five of the eight players were Asian-American.

Soden did a little digging, and found that about a tenth of the school’s population in those years was Japanese-American – many of whom had fled to Spokane to avoid internment camps on the West Side.

This path led Soden to the subject that has been at the heart of an audio documentary, online exhibits and archives, and last year’s documentary with North by Northwest – the World War II-era history of Japanese-Americans who were placed into internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“This was part of the Japanese-American experience that’s never really been told before,” Soden said.

Palpant and Tanner co-produced the film, which included interviews with several people who had lived in the camps. Among them were Spokane’s Ed and Heidi Tsutakawa, who met in the interment camp near Rupert, Idaho, and who returned with the filmmakers 60 years later.

In the film, the Tsutakawas wander through the tarpaper barracks, which lacked running water and plumbing, and talk about their experiences. It’s striking how often one of them jokes or laughs while relating horrible circumstances.

When they first arrive, Ed says, “Now this is a real treat.”

As they look at the bare wooden floors and walls, listening to the southern Idaho wind outside, Heidi says of the old days, “It wasn’t this nice.”

“At least you got three meals a day,” she says, laughing again, “even if there was chickweeds in there.”

Their good humor comes in the face of a sobering story. The American government forced more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry – American citizens and not – into camps around the West in 1942. The U.S. later drafted young men from the camps into the military.

It was a response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and Soden calls it one of the “tragedies of American history.”

It also provides an example of the ways in which Soden thinks understanding history can influence behavior in the present. When the U.S. was attacked in 2001, he said, the country’s response to Arab-American citizens – while flawed – was informed in part by knowledge of what the country had done before.

“Our collective response has been more judicious, less reactive, because of the awareness that we went through this once before,” he said.

‘Gifts aren’t hidden’

Whitehouse, the Whitworth journalism professor, was interviewed in a classroom on a snowy November day.

As Palpant asked questions, surrounded by lights and a camera, Tanner watched a monitor. Whitehouse talked about the strange suspicion that students seem to have about their passions.

“If they’re passionate about it, then how could it really be useful?” she says.

Whitehouse says she tries to make students feel like they can do what they really want to do – that it’s OK to do what you like.

“Gifts are generally not hidden,” she says. “Gifts are usually identified in what you like to do.”

Though the current film is being made specifically for future Whitworthians, Tanner thinks the exercise could have broader extensions.

“I could see it evolving into another piece,” he said, “because the material we’re exploring could be applied to anything.”

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