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Geoff Tabin, shown here looking into a South Sudan man's eyes before operating on them, is one of the central characters in Boulder filmmaker Jordan Campbell's film 'Duk County.' Courtesy photo
Geoff Tabin, shown here looking into a South Sudan man’s eyes before operating on them, is one of the central characters in Boulder filmmaker Jordan Campbell’s film ‘Duk County.’ Courtesy photo

Two years ago, as Boulder mountaineer and now-filmmaker Jordan Campbell prepared for a trip to South Sudan, he had no idea that the adventure he was embarking upon would turn into an award-winning documentary.

What started as a short video to remember the medical mission turned into a 37-minute documentary, “Duk County.” The film — created by cobbling together still photography by Campbell’s friend and fellow Marmot athlete, Ace Kvale, and video clips they both took on the trip — has become a film-festival favorite.

“Duk County” tells the story of doctors Geoff Tabin and Alan Crandal, who performed operations on the eyes of about 200 Sudanese people in Duk County, a region plagued by tribal conflicts.

The documentary recently won two awards at the Mountain Film festival in Telluride and will be shown at festivals around the country this year, including the Boulder Adventure Film Festival in October, Campbell said.

Campbell graduated from the University of Colorado in 1991 with a degree in communications and has spent the past 20 years climbing around the world. Now, he’s the public relations director for Marmot and has shifted his focus from climbing and mountaineering to stewardship. When he heard about the medical mission to South Sudan from Tabin, a longtime friend, he said he knew it would be one of the greater adventures of his life. Campbell planned to go for personal fulfillment, and only after he returned did the idea of making his experience into a film cross his mind.

In “Duk County,” the medical crew worked with John Dau, an original Lost Boy of Sudan who is now a humanitarian, at his Duk Lost Boys Clinic. Over the course of a few days, the medical team operated on countless Sudanese experiencing blindness from cataracts and trachoma, a bacterial infection of the eyes.

The team operated late into the night amid squalid conditions and triple-digit heat to give as many Sudanese people back their sight as possible. Later, after showing the reactions of Sudanese people who can see again, the film takes a dark turn as the crew learns that regional fighting broke out after they left, killing one of the men they treated.

The tribal violence is a result of many Sudanese civil wars and conflicts from the last half-century. One of Dau’s missions with his foundation, clinic and peace initiative, Campbell said, is to reprogram the war-torn nation to become self-sufficient. The medical mission, he said, was one more step toward Sudanese people help themselves: with renewed sight, they can experience education, agriculture and more.

And by helping blind people from several tribes at once, Dau and the doctors hope to spark dialogue and eventually peace.

“It’s going to take some years,” Campbell said. “Decades, even, to reverse the thinking that they’ve learned. Imagine you’ve grown up in a war zone, what else would you know?”

Photographer Kvale, whose still images were used in the film, said he still reflects on the poor living conditions and extreme suffering that he saw in South Sudan.

“It flashes by on our screens,” he said. “The numbers go by. The famines. The wars. The strife. We’ve seen it all and we’re slightly immune to it, but then to go into that isolated area and see these people, the bleakness of the landscape and that’s the only world they know. It’s a slice of humanity that very few people are able to see firsthand. It’s the antithesis of Boulder, Colo.”

Kvale and Campbell, who have been climbing partners in the past, usually only visit remote communities briefly before climbing a mountain or starting an expedition, Kvale said. This trip was different.

“There’s no mountain to climb or new rivers to cross, we were just going to help and see what we could do,” Kvale said.

The film feels organic to Kvale, because no one planned to make a film out of the mission, he said. They had a still camera and two relatively inexpensive video cameras for candid footage, but what came together and is now being shown at film festivals feels genuine, he added.

Co-producer and film editor Michael Herbener, who provided pro bono editing of the film, said editing together that candid, unplanned footage was challenging, but the end result was rewarding.

Instead of being a story about doctors, it became a dialogue about class, race, access to health and violence.

“We had all these pieces and as I was looking at it, I just saw there’s a bigger story here,” Herbener said.

“It’s about the people and the country and their situation, which is what I love so much about it. It’s not just a story about doctors. The doctors are just a small piece of it. They’re kind of the framework for this bigger story, which is so much more important.”

–Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.

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