Worlds away, documenting Minneapolis artists

A University alum filmed local hip-hop musicians for a movie that premieres this weekend.

University of Minnesota graduate Justin Schell works on finishing touches to his documentary

Holly Peterson

University of Minnesota graduate Justin Schell works on finishing touches to his documentary “We Rock Long Distance” at his apartment in Minneapolis on Saturday. Schell has been making documentaries for about 7 years, and this is his first feature length documentary.

Jackie Renzetti

When Justin Schell returned from traveling the world for his dissertation, he realized he couldn’t fit all of the experiences into his paper.

The University of Minnesota cultural studies and comparative literature graduate student teamed up with Twin Cities hip-hop artists for the project, filming performances, conducting interviews and, most notably, documenting trips overseas.

Now an alumnus, Schell will premier his documentary, “We Rock Long Distance,” this weekend. The film explores intergenerational relationships and the diaspora of hip hop.

When Schell initially contacted the artists — Maria Isa, M.anifest and Tou SaiKo Lee — his only goal was to gather information for articles he was writing. But as he got to know them, he became interested in their grandparents and roots in other countries.

“[The documentary] does, definitely, highlight these artists, not just as artists who put out CDs and music, but artists as people, with a lot more to them culturally and what they take on as people,” Lee said.

M.anifest grew up in Ghana, while Maria Isa grew up in Minnesota, visiting Puerto Rico throughout her life. As a baby, Tou SaiKo Lee moved to the U.S from a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand and revisited the country before the time he went with Schell.

Schell’s original plan was to include all three artists in his dissertation, but he quickly realized he had too much information. He instead focused on M.anifest for his paper, but he still visited the other countries.

“I tend to take on big things and sort out the pieces later,” Schell said.

He also helped Lee create a documentary titled “Travel in Spirals” about Lee’s first visit to Thailand. He also revisited Ghana for a conference with M.anifest’s grandfather, world-renowned ethnomusicologist J. H. Kwabena Nketia.

Schell strived to give back to each community he visited. When he went to Thailand, he showed “Travel in Spirals” to people there. He also gave away DVDs with his recent footage before he left.

In Ghana, he brought photos from a previous visit that he professionally developed to withstand humidity. He also helped M.anifest’s grandfather digitize old tapes.

Schell said by giving back, he was trying to address the “asymmetrical-power” relationship that comes from an American being in a foreign place, making a film and coming across people of a different culture.

“I would love to take the film back and show it … and dub the whole thing in Hmong, which is a challenge,” he said.

Robert Brown, Schell’s adviser, credited Schell’s characteristics of empathy and trustworthiness as reasons for his success.

“He’s a white guy who can win the confidence of Asian and African and Puerto Rican musicians, I mean, that’s really something,” he said.

While documenting, Schell said he tries to find a balance between organic happenings and those that couldn’t have happened without the film. He labored over selecting footage to create the most cohesive, accurate story for the documentary.

“People think that in documentary filming, you’re telling someone else’s story, and you’re not. You’re telling your own story of someone else’s story,” he said.

Schell’s thoughtful interviews and attention to detail proved impactful for Lee and Isa.

“It kind of put me in a situation where I felt like I needed to dig deeper than I usually would have if I just went [to Thailand] leisurely,” Lee said. “Justin really helped with meaningful questions and got us to look at things from different perspectives.”

Likewise, Isa found the process of documenting the trip rewarding.

“Being able to go visit family members who have been supporting my music … for them to tell me that they actually listen to my music and show me newspaper clippings that they had been collecting, that I didn’t even know of, that just meant a lot to me,” Isa said, “and the fact that it’s documented is important.”

Lee said the film echoes some of the struggles and goals shared by Minnesotan immigrants.

“We feel like, as a newer generation, we embrace the new culture and the new styles, such as hip hop, but then we want to honor our history and our elders and our culture at the same time,” Lee said, “and I feel like that’s a really powerful aspect of this film,”