History revealed, concentration developed

By Alexandra Kukulka

It has been three years since nearly 300 caskets were secretly exhumed from Burr Oak Cemetery and moved to an isolated hill to make plots available for resale. Although it is no longer in the headlines, people of the nearby Alsip community are still affected by the 2009 cemetery scandal.

Three Columbia alumni are working on a documentary titled “Beyond the Divide: the Burr Oak Cemetery Story” to show viewers the truth behind the cemetery and the

legal aftermath.

Naomi Kothbauer, Mitch Wenkus and Ian Wellman all met through Viva Doc, a Columbia documentary organization. Wenkus graduated in May 2010, while Kothbauer and Wellman graduated in May 2011. The tentative completion date for the film is fall 2012, according to Kothbauer.

According to WGN 9 News, there were exposed bones, caskets and concrete scattered over the grassy mound the day the scandal broke.

Lynching victim Emmett Till, an icon of the Civil Rights movement whose casket was one of the many unearthed in the cemetery, inspired Kothbauer to make the documentary. She believes that because Till was such an important figure, people deserve to know how the scandal affects history as well.

“I think that in a lot of situations people disregard history,” Kothbauer said. “They hear about it and they say, ‘That’s cool. I appreciate it,’ but there are responsibilities that people should take upon themselves to really honor [history] like they should.”

Kothbauer said she met Edward Boone, a co-producer of the film, through Kim Weatherly of Columbia’s Multicultural Affairs. Boone is now her connection to the African-American community in Alsip and helps her find people to interview for the documentary.

Besides co-producing the film, Boone is also part of the interview process because he was affected by the scandal, as well. In 2008, his mother was buried in the cemetery. During the ceremony, Boone noticed the grave wasn’t deep enough for a casket.

“The gravedigger’s instructor told me that they would not be lowering the casket any further down,” Boone said. “I suspected that there was someone buried beneath her.”

With the documentary, Boone wants to raise awareness and improve conditions in the cemetery. In the film, Kothbauer will also highlight the indignities associated with to the scandal. Many of the people buried there lived through segregation, and their caskets were dug up and thrown to the side, she said.

People honoring their family traditions and heritage is another theme of the film. The bigger picture will be how people respect their families, even when outside forces get in the way, Kothbauer said.

According to camera operator Mitch Wenkus, production of the film is well underway. The production team has already shot some interviews and set up meetings for more. He said the group is financing the project through family support and crowdsourcing on the website IndieGoGo.com, where people can donate money to larger ventures.

“We still have a ways to go to meet our goal, but we are still doing pretty good,” Wenkus said.

Once the film is put together, the team has a general distribution strategy in place. According to Kothbauer, the documentary will be entered in film festivals and aired on TV channels like WTTW Channel 11. Kothbauer added she would like to see the film become part of the history curriculum in high schools.

Along with growing interest in the film, the documentary concentration in the Film and Video Department has been going through changes since it began in 2001, according to Bruce Sheridan, Film and Video Department chair. The revisions to the concentration were needed because of the high number of undergraduate students starting documentaries and not finishing them,

he said.

“[The Film and Video Department] did about two years of research, looking at other programs, looking at what is going on in the professional documentary world, and we figured out a plan of how we wanted to put a task force together of faculty members,” Sheridan said.

Wenkus is excited to hear the documentary concentration is growing because it was dwindling when he graduated, he said.

Because of the new changes made to the documentary concentration, more students will be able to create films to raise awareness and bring about change.

“I think it is important that people’s consciousness be raised to a level that they’re concerned about what happens at the burial sites of their loved ones,” Boone said.

For more information on the documentary and ways to contribute, visit BurrOakFilm.com.