For Sally Sorte ’08, the effect of war on soldiers and their families became a vivid reality this summer.

Sally Sorte
Sally Sorte ’08 speaks with City of Portland Mayor Tom Potter prior to a softball match at the Northwest Institute for Social Change.

Sorte participated in the first Northwest Institute for Social Change, a summer fellowship program that educates students about the role of media in effecting positive social change. During the course of the program, she and several colleagues completed a documentary that examines the social and psychological impact of the war in Iraq on American soldiers and their families.

“People forget that there will be an entire generation of soldiers dealing with the implications of the war,” Sorte said. “It’s important for people to be able to tell their stories, and for us to listen.”

Sorte was one of only 13 students selected for the program in Portland, Ore. Her fellowship covered all housing and equipment costs.

Sorte began the program in June with a two-day orientation at Opal Creek, Ore. She then spent 10 days at Cedar Ridge Camp in Vernonia, Ore., where she participated in an intensive course in the history of social movements.

“The students spend their first two weeks studying the masters — Ed Murrow, Ira Glass, David Halberstam,” said Phil Busse, executive director of the institute. “The goal [of the full program] is to teach students emerging media technologies and, ultimately, to give them a healthy push along their career paths as independent journalists.”

The institute continued in downtown Portland, where Sorte took morning classes on media and politics through Portland State University. She also met journalists from major media outlets such as National Public Radio.

Each afternoon, Sorte worked with three other students on a short documentary, “Yellow Ribbon,” which explores the meaning behind the slogan “Support the troops.”

“We wanted to take a human approach rather than a political one,” Sorte said. “A lot of people treat the idea of supporting our troops as a conservative slogan, but we have to separate our feelings about the war from the social services we provide to veterans.”

In partnership with Your Mom Studios and Portland Community Media, who donated equipment and assisted with pre-production, Sorte’s crew worked for six weeks to produce, shoot and edit the film. They interviewed people whose lives have been profoundly affected by the war in Iraq, including a Marine who participated in the initial invasion and psychologists who treated veterans.

“We spoke with one woman whose son, daughter and husband are all in Iraq,” Sorte said. “She had to quit her job to raise a 4-year-old granddaughter whose parents are serving in Iraq. In her counseling, this little girl enacts simulations of battles.”

In one interview, Sorte talked with Ellen, the partner of a soldier in Iraq. “She said, ‘Everyone believes that the draft doesn’t exist, but every military family believes the draft does exist.’ It was extremely powerful to hear her speak,” Sorte said.

Many of the people Sorte interviewed drew parallels between the effects of the Vietnam War and the consequences of the war in Iraq. “Without prompting, many people began speaking about the forgotten man on the street corner,” Sorte said.

“Talking with people who’ve been there . . . it seemed like a cathartic experience for many family members and veterans to be able to share their stories,” she added.

Sorte, an English major at Whitman, plans to submit “Yellow Ribbon” to several film festivals, including the Sweet Onion Film Festival in Walla Walla. Meanwhile, she continues to advance her filmmaking with a class at Whitman. Her aim is to pursue a career in education and film to promote social change.

“Sally was a remarkable student and a fine representative of Whitman,” said Busse. “She came in very excited and walked out one step closer to being a documentary filmmaker.”

— Katie Combs ’08

Keith Raether
Office of Communications, Whitman College