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Recovering the story: Filmmaker documents journey of Great Trek Mennonites, descendants

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – It began with graduate studies, curiosity about an old family diary and every journalist’s unceasing quest for “a good story.”

Walter Ratliff, Herndon, Va., works as content manager for Associated Press Television. Among his credentials are helping to produce a documentary for German TV on religion in American life, producing a documentary on Christian-Muslim violence in northern Nigeria, producing a series of documentary reports for the AP on topics such as Islam in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Great Britain’s immigrant community, and earning a master’s degree from Georgetown University in Christian-Muslim relations.

Working on a grant from Georgetown to explore Christian-Muslim relations in central Asia, Ratliff began to connect that history with fragments of a diary that had been in his family as long as he could remember. The writer was Heinrich Jantzen and the diary mentions that Elizabeth Berg, Ratliff’s great-great-grandmother on his mother’s side, gave birth along the trail to Tashkent. This was in the fifth and last wagon train that in 1881 carried Mennonites from Ukraine and Russia into central Asia in search of a better life and perhaps the second coming of Christ.

Ratliff’s mother, Anna Mae Berg Ratliff, grew up in a Mennonite Brethren family in the Inola, Okla., area. As her interest in her family’s history grew, she traveled to North Newton to visit the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel College. “She began to find out about the stories of the Great Trek,” Ratliff says. Her journalist son, “always on the hunt for a good story,” started researching the work of Fred Belk, Dallas Wiebe and others who had written extensively on Claas Epp and the Mennonite communities who journeyed to central Asia in 1880-81.

“At first, I intended to write a book,” Ratliff says. “Then, because I work in TV and video, it became a documentary as well.”

Early in 2007, about a year into his research, Ratliff was on the internet looking for material on Claas Epp when he came upon information about a “retrace of the Great Trek,” a tour in late spring to be led by Bethel College professor Sharon Eicher and professor emeritus Jim Juhnke. Starting from the locations of the Molotschna colony in Ukraine and Am Trakt colony in Russia, the tour followed as closely as possible the route the wagon trains took into “Turkestan” – modern-day Uzbekistan.

Ratliff jumped at the opportunity to join the tour. “I was expecting to go to Uzbekistan, but by myself,” he says. “I knew it would be so much richer an experience to be able to go with scholars and [other] descendants.”

The 2007 tour also yielded Ratliff’s connection with Bethel graduate Jesse Nathan, Berkeley, Calif. Nathan and fellow Bethel graduate Andy Gingerich had dreamed of doing a video on the Great Trek retrace tour. Gingerich had to drop out of the project but Nathan persisted. He was co-producer of Through the Desert Goes Our Journey and “a great asset,” Ratliff says.

“Jesse has rounded up some amazing resources, including much of the original music,” Ratliff says. Nathan enlisted Gingerich to play guitar and Bethel graduate Russ Adrian to play piano on the soundtrack. He put Ratliff in contact with Bethel graduate Ian Huebert, who designed the DVD cover art. “[I want] to emphasize Jesse’s hard work,” Ratliff says. “His travels to Beatrice, Neb., and Paso Robles, Calif., to do on-camera interviews and gather rare photos and documents were extremely valuable to the project.”

The title of the documentary, Through the Desert Goes Our Journey, comes from a hymn that research shows was sung by the Mennonites on the Great Trek. The 2007 tour group sang “Through the desert goes our journey” in English and German, Ratliff says, but not to the original tune. A tip from Juhnke led Ratliff to Helen Ruth Jantzen Unruh and the original tune, “O du Liebe Meiner Liebe,” which can be found in the 1940 Mennonite Hymnary. Juhnke also put Ratliff in touch with William Eash, Bethel professor of music, and through him 2008 Bethel graduate Dan Graber, who made the hymn into music for choir and soloists, which the Bethel College Concert Choir then recorded for the documentary soundtrack.

Through the Desert Goes Our Journey tells the story of the 19th-century migration into central Asia. It also documents how descendants of Mennonites who made that journey have begun to recover the story. In the process, it brings to light both photos and facts not previously seen or known.

The Mennonites in “Turkestan” established two settlements, one in the Talas Valley in what is now Kyrgyzstan and one near Khiva in western Uzbekistan. The latter was called Ak Metchet, or “white mosque.” The locals named it that because of the Mennonite church, which was freshly whitewashed each year.

One thing Ratliff’s research uncovered was Turkestan Solo, a 1932 book by renowned Swiss traveler Ella Maillart that has a chapter titled “The Germans of Ak Metchet.” From that, he learned that Maillart was also a photographer and tracked down, in an archive in Switzerland, photos of the eponymous white church, both inside an out, and many others. “There are photos of [Mennonite leader] Emil Riesen,” Ratliff says. “There are photos that show the podium inside the church with the words ‘Herr, hilf mir, Lord, help me,’ on it. Nobody had ever seen a photo of that church until now.”

Another previously unknown element that can be seen in the documentary is the only moving images of a Silk Road kingdom (Khiva) before the Communist Revolution. “This film has never been seen before outside the former Soviet Union and rarely outside Uzbekistan,” Ratliff says. “Near the turn of the century, a boy named Divanov was mentored in photography by Wilhelm Penner, the schoolteacher at Ak Metchet. Divanov grew up to be the ‘father of Uzbek photography.’ We did not know about his photographs and motion pictures or his connection to the Khiva Mennonites until we travelled to Uzbekistan. We were able to secure some of Divanov’s film for the documentary.”

Ratliff’s research also unearthed “a lot of stuff not known before outside Germany and Uzbekistan. For example, most written history has it that the Ak Metchet residents were deported [during Soviet collectivization in 1934] to Shar-i-Sabz, a valley south of Samarkand, when in fact they were actually sent to Tajikistan. In the early ’90s, the German government opened up immigration to ethnic Germans in the former Soviet Union. I was able to find photos from Ak Metchet that belong to descendants now living in Germany.”

The story of that Mennonite community in Tajikistan is a whole other one, he says, “outside the scope of this documentary.” It was hard to get the script together on a deadline, he adds, because of the new things that research kept bringing to light.

On a personal level, Ratliff says, the most surprising thing was “how big a deal this was” – this family story that hardly anyone in his family seemed to know. “There was not a lot of talking about these things in the community where my mother grew up,” he says. “We just knew that our ancestors had been in these places with strange, unknown names like Aulie Ata. But as the generations have [proceeded], there is more desire to talk about the past and piece the story together.”

Through the Desert Goes Our Journey is dedicated to the late Dallas Wiebe, author of Our Asian Journey, a fictionalized account of the Great Trek, and other nonfiction writing on the topic. Ratliff had to put off interviews with Wiebe several times on account of Wiebe’s health – and two days before they were finally set to meet face-to-face, earlier this year, Wiebe died.

Ratliff is also under contract with Wipf & Stock Publishers to write a book, tentatively titled Our Refuge in the Desert, to come out in 2009.

Ratliff will premiere the film at Bethel College’s Fall Festival, with showings Saturday, Oct. 4, at 9 a.m. and Monday, Oct. 6, at 7:30 p.m., both in Krehbiel Auditorium of the Fine Arts Center. Tickets are available at Thresher Bookstore in Schultz Student Center or at the Fine Arts Center ticket office before each showing. He will also talk about the making of the documentary, Saturday afternoon, Oct. 4, at 4 p.m. in the Kauffman Museum auditorium, which is free.

The DVD of Through the Desert Goes Our Journey will be on sale at the Bethel showings or can be ordered at www.throughthedesert.com/Welcome.html.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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